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Rabbi Zaltzman on Parashat Vayechi

Mosaic of Joseph's brothers' betrayal. (Flickr photo - https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/)

In the lead-up to the famous story of the betrayal of Joseph by his brothers, there is an extreme moral contrast between Reuben, the eldest brother, and Judah, the siblings’ presumptive leader. Reuben wasn’t even present during the conspiracy, having isolated himself in an ascetic practice of repentance and spiritual elevation. When he finds out what was done to Joseph, he is shaken and runs to save him – only to discover that he is too late. Judah, on the other hand, exhibits a shocking level of callousness when he argues, “What will we gain if we kill our brother and cover his blood? Come, let’s sell him … and not harm him with our own hands, for he is our brother, our flesh.”

Reuben, obviously, is a person who works on himself. He challenges his instincts, habits and emotions. He seems to possess a frail ego, but is without a tinge of arrogance. Yet Reuben’s greatness is also his flaw. In every situation, despite his noble intentions and his sensitivity to injustice, the victim never ends up actually gaining anything. Case in point: while Joseph lay helpless in a pit, Reuben went off to fast, pray and meditate. Had he remained, he might have actually rescued Joseph. Reuben is a great, spiritual man, but he is not a leader.

Judah, meanwhile, is rougher around the edges. His life does not focus as intently on his own inner world or personal growth. He is aware of his surroundings, present in each situation, feeling and reacting to the plight of others and focused on practical outcomes. He is perhaps less pure than Reuben, but infinitely more down to earth. Reuben’s intentions are greater, but it is Judah who makes a real impact on people’s lives.

This contrast is instructive in the function and meaning of genuine royalty and leadership. There is a difference between a saint (tzadik) and a real leader. While a saint is focused primarily on his own values and spiritual growth, a leader is most concerned with how his actions influence others.