The conflict between Reuven and Yehudah has always fascinated me. While they never actually have an argument, in almost every situation they seem, while on the same side, to be approaching the issue in fundamentally different ways. Each one is working with different styles of leadership, and it is this that prevents the success of one while elevating the other.
Reuven appears to commit some grievous error in moving Yaakov’s bed from Bilhah’s tent to Leah’s (as Chazal interpret the Pasuk), part of a possible attempt to either remind Yaakov that Bilhah is of a lower status than Reuven’s own mother, or to assert some dominance over the family; it was now apparently complete and he, as the oldest, would next take the place of patriarch. Reuven’s subsequent actions may also be related to this. He often reacts to various challenges by putting himself in the forefront and attempting to lead the charge, as in the case of Yosef’s first problematic encounter with his brothers. When the other brothers want to sell Yosef, it is he who instructs them not to do so. He suggests they imprison him in the pit instead, intending to retrieve him later on. But a question remains: why not simply instruct them to release the teenaged Yosef?
Reuven’s other attempted intervention (in this week’s Parsha), when Tzafnat Paneach requires Binyamin to visit Mitzrayim, seems fraught with a similar problem. In that case, Reuven offers the life of his own two sons to Yaakov if he doesn’t return with Binyamin. This seems to be a bizarre set of terms: will the death of grandchildren account for the death of children?
Yehudah’s choices appear equally odd. During the episode between Yosef and the rest of his kin, he shows what he must think is more mercy than Reuven showed: instead of imprisoning him to die of starvation, he suggests selling him into slavery, giving him at least a chance of survival. His own solo adventure occurs afterward: The episode with Tamar and the case of mistaken identity leads him to declare her righteousness, proving Yehudah’s willingness to admit to his mistakes (and, not incidentally, setting his descendants up for future kingship). During the conflict with Tzafnat Paneach, Yehudah offers his own guarantee of safety, dependant on nothing but his determination. In the end, it is Yehudah who stands up to the man revealed to be Yosef, Yehudah who receives the leadership of Klal Yisrael through the ages, and Yehudah who survives to this day past all exiles, even in the very terms that describe us best, “Jew” and “Judaism” (Yehudi and Yahadut).
How may we contrast these two great patriarchs, essentially two methodologies of leadership, two styles? Reuven, in attempting to interfere with his father’s marital life, was burned by his impulsiveness, his directness. In response, he tries subterfuge when dealing with Yosef; he is cruel only to be kind, and means to return for him later. The others, however, especially Yehudah, might have taken this as excessive cruelty, as a quick execution at the hands of the brothers would most certainly have been less painful than death by starvation or the bite of the poisonous animals Chazal tell us resided in the pit. Finally, in the case of guaranteeing Binyamin’s safety, Reuven, having failed in his second attempt as he had in his first, returns to the impulsive, over-the-top manner of leadership. Yaakov rejects it as before, regarding it as inappropriate to the situation. Reuven, though well meaning, cannot seem to learn from his mistakes and correct his behavior. This impulsiveness, coupled with a desire to lead, may be what brings so many Bnai Reuven down into the pit with Korach, the very situation to which their ancestor abandoned Yosef.
Yehudah, on the other hand, displays a much better evolution of character. When he suggests selling Yosef, he believes he is ameliorating Reuven’s cruelty, and Chazal offer the same excuse for both Reuven and Yehudah: they believe the other brothers would not listen to a suggestion as drastic as releasing Yosef entirely. Yehudah here is struck by Reuven’s second mistake, being too subtle and doing what he thinks is the best he can. The next time, when no one but himself is present and Tamar’s life depends on his words, he realizes that he must give up his own ego in order to do the right thing. Reuven, when attempting to sway the brothers, feared for his place of dominance, and failed; Yehudah, when he had a place of dominance in society, was willing to give it up to do the right thing. Finally, when it comes down to dealing with Tzafnat Paneach, Yaakov respects the man willing to put himself on the line. The leader’s place goes to the one who realizes that his retention of it depends not on his desire to keep it, but on his willingness to give it up for the greater good.
Happy Bar Mitzvah to my beloved Kol Torah, and I wish it many more years and many more Divrei Torah!