In this parsha, the Torah describes the inter-generational transition from Yaakov to his children and his extended family. Yaakov summons his children in order to reveal to them what will happen to them at the end of days: “ Yaakov called for his sons and said, ‘Gather and I will tell you what will happen to you at the end of days.’” (Genesis 49:1) However, Yaakov does not reveal the end of days, but rather he blesses some of the sons and to the others he did not withhold the arrows of his criticism. This critique was given in the hope that there would be improvement or to explain why a specific role of leadership was given to a particular son. 


Hidden in Yaakov’s words to Reuven, Shimon and Levi are a number of important points that help us understand the qualities necessary in order to be a leader of Israel. These qualities are a requisite for correct behaviour and for choosing the correct leader. In this essay, we will examine these qualities according to the commentary of Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch on the parsha, which we will expand and elaborate on. 


Reuven — “ Reuven, you are my firstborn, my strength and the first of my might; superior in rank and superior in power. You have the restlessness of water; you shall not have superiority, for you ascended upon your father’s couch; then you profaned Him, Who ascended upon my bed.” (Genesis 49:3-4) Yaakov conveys a number of messages to Reuven in reference to his attributes and nature that he needs to correct.


Reuven’s birthright was concealed in the naturally great obligation of “rank and power” (superiority, leadership, kingship) that results from his being the firstborn. However, the superiority of being the firstborn is not necessarily a guarantee of success, and it is possible to lose it a fraction of a second. Reuven lost his superiority by virtue of “his restlessness” — which can be interpreted like “boorish and impetuous (פוחזים) men”, (Judges 9:4) people lacking in understanding. Yaakov criticizes Reuven that he is not deliberate sufficiently in his decision making, a good example of which in his suggestion to kill his two sons if he does not return from Egypt with Binyamin (Genesis 42:37) Rav Hirsch suggests an additional interpretation, noting the relationship in the verse of “restlessness” to water. According to his understanding, water is a symbol of great power and great ability to sweep away and to flow; however, water has no power to hold onto something, which reveals a lack of spiritual steadfastness. According to this interpretation, Yaakov reveals to Reuven that the problem in his character is one of lack of stability and the lack of a spine. A leader of Israel cannot be led; he must lead. That is not to say that he does not have to listen and receive advice, but his decisions cannot be influenced by whatever way the popular winds are blowing at a given time.


According to this interpretation, leadership is not necessarily a characteristic of birth, and the expectation from a leader is to lead and not be a follower. A leader must be firm in his understanding; he must show strength in his thinking, creativity and judgement. 


Shimon and Levi — “Shimon and Levi are brothers; instruments of violence are their weapons….Cursed be their wrath for it is mighty, and their anger because it is harsh. I will separate them throughout Yaakov and I will scatter them throughout Yisrael.” (Genesis 49:5-7)

On the one hand, Shimon and Levi showed the feelings of brotherhood and concern and were ready to fight for these principles. These attributes are manifested in the incident at Shechem and in the sale of Yosef (albeit, in a much more negative context). However, this brotherhood is revealed through “instruments of violence” — through cunning and deceit of the people of Shechem. Brotherhood and fellowship are not just familial principles, but also must be practised in relation to others. The brotherhood of Shimon and Levi crossed the line with its insolence, and they did not know how to weigh and consider their actions calmly. The nation of Yisrael does not want a leader who does know how to control his reactions to another, they do not desire a leader who exploits an others weakness in order to benefit, even to gain a national benefit. The ends do not justify the means, because a “principle” of justifying the means ends up bringing the nation and the people to the brink of destruction.


Yehuda — “ Yehuda, you your brothers will acknowledge; your hand will be at the nape of your enemies, your father’s sons will prostrate themselves to you. A lion cub is Yehuda. From the prey, my son, you elevated yourself. He crouched, rested like a lion and like an awesome lion, who will rouse him?” (Genesis 49:8-9) Yaakov looked at Yehuda and saw the qualities of a leader. Yehuda’s strength did not rely on a sword or spear, but on his “hand” — meaning that his deeds and conduct instilled fear and/or respect in his enemies. In Yehuda there is the combination of the strength of a “lion cub” — the strength of youth and vitality — with age, tranquility and satisfaction with considerate judgement. Yehuda is not eager to battle, “crouched, rested” he examines the situation and the reality precisely; all the while he still remains a lion. Yehuda’s strength is concealed in his personality and attributes. The Messiah that Yaakov sees in Yehuda does not ride on a horse, representing the horses of battle, but “he binds his young donkey to a vine branch” (Genesis 49:11), he is poor, riding a donkey. A revelation like this,  reveals considered judgement especially at a time of dramatic changes in the way the world behaves, especially at times like this, one needs to ride on a donkey, slowly and carefully in order to reach the “promised land” (the menucha and nachalah).


Yehuda is the chosen leader not just because of his confession in the incident of Tamar, but because of the spiritual attributes that he developed. These attributes are not inborn but were formed by him by means of working on his positive qualities and developing attributes of leadership. Within him is both power and peace, strength and quiet, and considered judgement. Yehuda represents opposites that work together cooperatively with the ability of self-control and inner strength. However, Yehudah does not rule in isolation. Even though he has the power and control, he still needs his brothers: “you your brothers will acknowledge”. We see the connection between Yehuda and his brothers first at the sale of Yosef where the brothers listen to Yehuda’s suggestion: “And Yehudah said to his brothers, ‘What is the gain if we slay our brother and cover up his blood? Come let us sell him to the Ishmaelites but our hand shall not be upon him, for he is our brother, our flesh.’ and his brothers agreed.” (Genesis 37:26-27) After the sale of Yosef, it was the brothers that caused Yehudah to descend from his position of leadership. “Now it came about at that time that Yehudah went down from his brothers….” (Genesis 38:1) Rashi explains: “Why is this section placed here thus interrupting the section dealing with history of Yosef? To teach that his brothers degraded him from his high position. When they saw their father’s grief they said, “You told us to sell him: if you had told us to send him back to his father we would also have obeyed you.” Yehuda’s brothers accept Yehuda’s suggestion but they also hold him responsible for the consequences emanating from these decisions. Yehuda who begins to become aware of his power, uses this strength of leadership at the end of parshat Miketz, when the goblet is found in Binyamin’s possession. “ And Yehuda said, ‘What shall we say to my master? What shall we speak, and how shall we exonerate ourselves?…”(Genesis 44:16) Yehuda speaks in the name of the brothers and on behalf of the brothers, creating a synthesis between his personal charisma and collaboration with his brothers. It is possible that this is the point that distinguishes Yehuda from Yosef, who is “separated from his brothers”. (Genesis 49:26) Yosef did not see himself as one of the brothers but as a “father” and “benefactor”. He tried to seek out the “his brothers welfare”, but “… when he had not yet drawn close to them, they plotted against him to put him to death.” (Genesis 37:13 and 18). A king of Israel draws his power from the people which strengthens his individual personality. He does not isolate himself from the people, King David was leaping and dancing like one of the common people when the Ark was brought up to Yerushalayim, and this was not viewed as a defect. The deep message that we can learn from this parsha in regard to leadership is: The kingship and leadership of Israel does not depend on one great individual, no matter how great, but on the combination of the entire people and a ruler who knows how to unify and combine and to take responsibility for his decisions.