December 17, 2021
If you’re a fan of cinematic ancient Roman blockbusters, you might have seen Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, starring Russell Crowe. The movie opens with a battle scene; the aged emperor Marcus Aurelius oversees one last battle, against the Germanic horde, that will consolidate his empire and the pax romana once and for all. The battle is led by his greatest general, the legendary Maximus Decimus Meridius (played by Crowe). Maximus is a fearless and brilliant leader, beloved by the troops for his courage, his compassion, and his innate leadership qualities. After the bloody battle is over, the emperor’s son Commodus arrives, fresh from Rome and late to the action, believing that his father is about to crown him emperor. But Marcus Aurelius has other plans; he knows that his son is not fit to rule – “Commodus is not a moral man!,” he tells Maximus – and so he passes the mantle of leadership to his heroic, if reluctant, general. The rest of the movie follows from there: the emperor’s son usurps the crown and Maximus ends up sold as a slave, destined for the gladiator’s arena. It’s a pretty good move, if you’re into that kind of thing.
Of course, one of the themes that the movie deals with is what makes a good leader? What makes someone worthy of leadership? Our parasha this week asks the same question.
In chapter 49 of the Book of Genesis, the ailing patriarch Ya’akov/Jacob calls his sons to him, to offer them “blessings.” On a pshat level (a plain reading of the text) though, what he gives is not so much “blessings” as assessments. Each of his three eldest sons, Reuven, Shimon, and Levi, is dismissed in succession from what might be his rightful place as leader of the family. It is the fourth oldest, Yehudah (Judah), who is singled out for the highest praise:
You, O Judah, your brothers shall praise;
Your hand shall be on the nape of your foes;
Your father’s sons shall bow low to you…
The scepter shall not depart from Judah… (Gen. 49:8, 10)
While Yehuda’s role in the Joseph saga is complex, it is one of marked evolution. Remember, it is Yehudah who proposes selling Yoseph/Joseph into slavery at the beginning of the story – a leadership role, but hardly a positive one. We get a glimpse, however, of his own life story in chapter 38, where we read the episode of Yehudah and Tamar, and we begin to see some of his remarkable qualities. In that story, he admits wrongdoing, to his own shame, and ends up acquitting the otherwise powerless Tamar. And of course, the pinnacle of his character development takes place at the beginning of last week’s parasha, in the extraordinary interchange with Yoseph in which he offers himself as a slave in place of his brother Binyamin.
Ya’akov is not blind to these aspects of his son’s character. He sees in him someone who is respected by his brothers, who is thoughtful, capable of self-criticism, altruistic, compassionate, empathetic, and courageous. This is the stuff of leadership. Remember, King David will come from the line of Yehudah, and the messiah will come from the line of David. That sets a pretty high bar. But for God’s chosen one, all of those are necessary qualifications. Ya’akov sees the future, and Yehudah is to be the standard-bearer.
The reason that this discussion is important, in the broader picture, is that we should be demanding the same qualities from our own leaders. Imagine if the majority of our elected leaders exhibited compassion, empathy, a sense of shame, courage. These qualities are (by and large) shockingly lacking in whatever passes for leadership today. The idea behind mashiach/messiah is partly that there is an ideal that we should be aiming for – what is a leader? Yehudah is a leader! Unlike Commodus, the son of David will be a “moral man” (and/or the daughter of David will be a “moral woman”). Ya’akov is able to see this; he knows who should succeed him. It is not Shimon and Levi, with their uncontrolled violence; it is not Reuven, “unstable as water;” it is the mentsch, Yehudah, who knows from suffering, who is strong of hand and soft of heart. This is the medium that will bridge our gap to the divine.
Let’s heed the message of parashat Vayechi and, like Ya’akov (and Marcus Aurelius), recognize what true leadership looks like and demand it of our own leaders.
Shabbat shalom um’vorach – a peaceful and blessed Shabbat,
Rabbi Sam Levine