The Staff of Yehudah by Rabbi Duvie Nachbar


The concurrence of our celebration of Chanukah and the public reading of Parashat MiKeitz is nearly a yearly occurrence. The frequent pairing of these two events suggests more than a mere coincidence of the calendar. A deeper thematic thread must bind these two episodes together. Often, the thematic connection focuses on the heroic, lionhearted bravery of the Chashmonaim, their spiritual stature, and their deliverance of the Jewish people from distress on the one hand, and Yosef’s political prowess, piety, and orchestration of his family’s survival on the other hand. An additional analysis, however, begins with a critical look at the propriety of the Chashmonaim’s achievements.

Ramban (BeReishit 49:10) cautions against a glowing, idealized assessment of the Chashmonaim’s accomplishments. On the one hand, they were “Chassidei Elyon,” exceedingly pious individuals who successfully safeguarded the nation’s commitment to Torah and Mitzvot. The absence of their contribution would have spelled the severance of Torah from Jewish hands. At the same time, they and their entire household were ultimately uprooted due to their assumption of the kingship of Israel. The Chashmonaim descended from the family of Kohanim; as a result, their rise to royalty violated the precept of “the staff shall not depart from Yehudah, nor the scepter from between his feet” (BeReishit 49:10). The monarchy was designated for the tribe of Yehudah alone, and the Chashmonaim’s encroachment on their exclusive rights, in the end, resulted in their demise.

Parashat MiKeitz introduces an important stage in the development of Yehudah’s personality and the formation of his leadership qualities. Yaakov and his entire family languish under the burden of a regional famine. Yet, the demand placed upon them is unequivocal, firm, and unbending. They are not to return to Egypt without the accompaniment of their younger brother, Binyamin. The possibility of losing Binyamin is too harrowing for Yaakov to even consider. Reuven and Yehudah independently attempt to persuade Yaakov to revisit his decision. One effort results in a resolute denial without any substantive response to the suggested proposal whereas the other successfully persuades Yaakov to reconsider his position.

Reuven seeks to motivate Yaakov by adopting punishing consequences should he abdicate his own responsibilities - “kill my two sons if I fail to return Binyamin to you” (BeReishit 42:37). Yaakov’s forceful reaction restates his unwillingness to send Binyamin and recalls his attendant fears. Surprisingly, Yaakov utterly ignores the substance of Reuven’s proposal. Ibn Ezra and Radak explain that, apparently, it is not deserving of any response. Reuven speaks irresponsibly, rashly, and foolishly. The consequences he places do not affect him directly but rather affect his children. Moreover, they would not serve any constructive end other than inflicting additional pain and sorrow. In this context, the Midrash Rabbah (91:9) refers to Reuven as a “Bechor Shoteh,” a foolish firstborn. Yaakov remains unmoved.

Yehudah’s proposition to Yaakov achieves a very different fate. His suggestion balances the infusion of a sense of urgency, logical argumentation, and, most importantly, a convincing sense of personal responsibility. As a result, Yehudah effectively secures Yaakov’s confidence. The Midrash Tanchuma (MiKeitz 8) highlights the swiftness of Yaakov’s response – “Miyad Shalcho Imahem,” “he (Yaakov) immediately releases Binyamin to travel with them.”

Yehudah appeals to Yaakov’s sense of urgency. He implies that every moment is precious, and important opportunities are being squandered with each passing day when stating, “had we not tarried, we could have already travelled and returned twice” (BeReishit 43:10). Moreover, not only are Yaakov’s well-being and Yehudah’s well-being at stake, but the wellbeing of all of their children is as well. In addition to introducing this sense of urgency, Yehudah also appeals to Yaakov’s logic. Suffering through the famine will certainly bring about the destruction of the family. Conversely, the potential danger to Binyamin on the roadways is, at best, an uncertainty. Yehudah states, according to the Midrash, “Set aside the doubtful circumstances, and act based on the certain outcome” (Midrash Rabbah, 91:10). Logic dictates that assuming the risk of harm to Binyamin is the safer course of action.

Most importantly, though, Yehudah conveys to Yaakov his acceptance of personal responsibility for Binyamin’s safe return when proclaiming, “I will be a guarantor for him, you shall demand him from my hand, and if I fail to return him, I will bear my sin for all eternity” (BeReishit 43:9). Yehudah assumes personal responsibility. He does not suggest consequences that directly affect others, nor does he rely upon an unproductive counter punishment. He relays to Yaakov his sense of accountability and direct, personal responsibility for anything that might transpire. In fact, the Gemara (Bava Batra, 173b) uses Yehudah’s example as a paradigm for a specific model of “Areiv,” of a guarantor for a loan. It is unnecessary for Yehudah to assume any punishment in order to convince Yaakov. The burden of sin and the lingering sentiment of failed expectations and an unfulfilled promise are enough to underscore the seriousness with which Yehudah approaches the situation (Eim LeMikra, qtd. in Nechama Leibowitz, New Studies in BeReishit, pg. 475). For Yehudah, a deep sense of personal responsibility is a sufficient motivator.

The coincidence of Shabbat Chanukah and Parashat MiKeitz highlights an important dimension of Jewish leadership. Parashat MiKeitz presents an important stage in the development of Yehudah’s personality and leadership qualities. Yehudah teaches us that a Jewish leader leads by example. He assumes personal responsibility and is motivated by an abiding sense of his own accountability. He does not seek to divest his responsibility onto others, nor does he look to escape scrutiny by blaming other parties. This spirit of personal responsibility enabled the tribe of Yehudah to secure the exclusive rights to the monarchy of Israel. A nuanced assessment of the Chashmonaim’s achievements recognizes their encroachment on the leadership role of Yehudah within the nation. This role was obtained and secured, in part, due to Yehudah’s leadership qualities developed in this week’s Parashah.

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