What is the most important quality to look for in a Jewish leader? Intelligence? Self-confidence? Determination? Integrity? Sociability?
As we read the Torah portions of these weeks which tell us the story of Yosef and his brothers, the spotlight seems to keep moving back and forth between Yosef and Yehuda. In these 3 Torah portions we are being given a very personal and intimate look at their early mistakes, their defining moments and their ultimate emergence as the progenitors of Jewish kingship which would come only from the lineage of the two of them. Each portion contains another milestone moment that teaches us profound lessons about what it means to be a Jewish leader.
This week’s portion ends with the spotlight on Yehuda and a proposal to his father that will define his essence. The viceroy of Egypt, who is really Yosef under cover, offers the brothers a proposition. If they would like to purchase food, they would need to present their youngest brother, Benyamin, who was not with them at the time to the viceroy. When Yaakov heard this, he adamantly refused, unwilling to take the chance that he might lose the only remaining son from his cherished wife Rochel, to this Egyptian tyrant.
And then Yehuda steps in. Realizing that the destiny of the sons of Yaakov is on the line, that herein lays the opportunity to bring atonement for falling short on protecting his brother Yosef, Yehuda makes the ultimate guarantee. He tells Yaakov that if he does not return Benyamin unharmed then he will lose his life in this world and his share in Olam Haba, the Next World. In other words, Yehuda is putting everything on the line.
Giving up one’s share in the Next World is no small potatoes. In Jewish thought, we believe that the next world is the ultimate place of connecting to God, a place of no concealment, of ultimate revelation. It is the promise of a share in the world to come that helps us understand suffering and sacrifice. A place we don’t understand yet yearn for and dream about.
But Yehuda teaches us that there is something even more important to great leaders than their share in the Next World: The world of another.
Many great leaders throughout history have adopted this view. There are abundant stories that tell us of great Tzadikim giving away their share in the world to come to save a life or to bring joy to others.
But practically speaking, what Yehuda is telling us is that we can’t sit comfortably on our own merits, focusing exclusively on our own spirituality, when we are needed by others. There are times when our contribution to our community and to the world might feel like it is coming at the expense of our “master plan” as to how our life should look. But it is through living life with that perspective that will ultimately earn us the privilege to live up to the name all Jews carry, Yehudim, after our father Yehuda, who was willing to put it all on the line.