Yaakov Avinu Votes for Unity over Economy

Who do we want as our leader? When selecting someone to lead us, which issues should we prioritize? Should we vote based on the economy or should we look for someone who can unify our nation?  I ask this question not as an American voter, but as a Jew. What does Jewish leadership look like?

At the end of his life, Yaakov Avinu had a choice to make.   He had two very capable sons, Yosef and Yehuda, and he had to decide which one of them would lead.  As Yaakov settled with his family in the beginning of Parshat Vayeishev, he clearly wanted Yosef to succeed him.  He loved Yosef more than any of his other children and made a special coat for him, a “כתונת פסים,” a coat of many colors.  The only other time this term is used in Tanach (Shmuel II, 13:18), we are told that this is a garment of royalty. Yaakov viewed Yosef as royalty, as Yaakov’s successor.

However, at the end of his life, Yaakov told Yehuda that his descendants will be king.  “לא יסור שבט מיהודה ומחוקק מבין רגליו – the scepter shall not depart from Yehuda, nor the ruler’s staff from beneath his feet.”  But what about Yosef? Did Yaakov completely reject him from leadership? Not exactly. Yaakov told Yosef that Ephraim and Menashe will be like Reuven and Shimon.  Just like Reuven is considered a tribe and Shimon is considered a tribe, so, too, Menashe is considered a tribe and Ephraim is considered a tribe. In other words, Yosef received the rights of the bechor, the firstborn male.  He received a double portion. Two tribes were assigned to Yosef, whereas only one tribe was assigned to each of his brothers. Yosef was granted the rights of the bechor, whereas Yehuda was granted the rights of the king.

Perhaps Yaakov selected Yosef as the bechor for personal reasons.  The Hizkuni suggests that Yaakov selected Yosef in order to honor Rachel, giving her three tribes, or one more than the maidservants Bilhah and Zilpah.  Or maybe Yaakov understood that the bechor receives a double portion because his job is to provide for the family, and he picked Yosef because he saw him as a fit provider.  After all, after Yaakov himself purchased the rights of the bechor from Esav, he saw fit to receive the blessing of material success from his father Yitzchak instead of Esav.  Naturally, then, Yaakov would grant this right to Yosef, who provided for his family during the famine and afterwards.

However when it came time to select the leader, the namesake and future of his nation, Yaakov picked Yehuda. In doing so, Yaakov sought the son whose strength was not in material provisions, but in his ability to unify his people.  Yes, Yosef was the provider, but Yehuda was the unifier. The brothers were afraid of Yosef, as we saw when they feared that he would take revenge on them after Yaakov died. Yehuda, on the other hand, is someone who brought the brothers together, as he did when he convinced them not to leave Binyamin behind.

What was it that made Yehuda such a good unifier?  First, he truly cared about those around him. Once he guaranteed his father that he would return with Binyamin, he was determined not to leave Egypt without Binyamin.  But Yehuda had another unique quality as well. That quality was his humility. The Tosefta in Brachot states, “מפני מה זכה יהודה למלכות שהודה בתמר – Why did Yehuda merit the monarchy?  Because he admitted [his mistake] with Tamar.” Yehuda was not a perfect individual. In contrast to Yosef, he made his share of mistakes. But he was someone who had the humility to admit he was wrong and chart a new path forward.  The brothers could not relate to Yosef. Yosef was a tzaddik, a righteous person. He lived a perfect life. He didn’t make mistakes. But Yehuda was someone to whom they could relate. If Yehuda made mistakes and had the humility to admit them and move forward, so could they.

At the beginning of Yaakov’s life in Eretz Canaan, he has one vision of who he wants to lead the next generation.  But at the end of his life, we see that that vision has changed. One son is a provider and the other son is a unifier.  Yaakov casts his vote for the unifier, and in doing so conveys to us an important message about leadership. As Jews, we must seek out leaders who despite their imperfections, use their humility to bring us together, model repentance, and help us chart a path forward as a nation, united.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.