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What makes a leader?

By Rabbi Jonathan Tawil
January 5, 2017

The eleven sons of Yaakov stood accused and threatened before one of the most powerful men in the world, the Viceroy of Egypt – a regime not known for compassion or forgiveness. They had to make a decision, and their options, though seemingly straightforward, were actually quite complex.

Binyamin had been “caught” (in reality set up by Yosef) stealing the cup of the Viceroy and his brothers were faced with several possible choices. Self-preservation would dictate that they part ways with their brother Binyamin just as they did with Yosef years ago; however, their present situation seemed much more complicated. The only reason Binyamin joined them in Egypt was to serve as proof that they were, in fact, brothers, and not spies. Like true brothers, they could close ranks and follow Binyamin wherever fate took him, be it incarceration or even death, and demand that they all be treated as one family, sharing the same fate. Perhaps gambling this option would convince their Egyptian tormentor that they have been speaking the truth, that they were, in fact, brothers, and that they should all be set free?


Their other option would be to choose the opposite path offered to them by the Egyptian justice system, and simply walk away, washing their hands of their brother, the last remaining favoured son of the favoured wife – Rachel.


Faced with this quagmire, Yehuda suggests a third solution – a solution that seems, given his personal track record, completely uncharacteristic and unexpected. Yehuda suggests that he and Binyamin change places: Binyamin will go home to his father, while Yehuda will face a life of servitude.

This is the Parasha that Yehudah becomes the leader of Klal Yisrael.

Many years earlier, shortly after the sale of Yosef, the Torah relates how Yehudah ‘went down from amongst his brothers’ (38:1). He was the one that suggested Yosef should be sold. The brothers had listened to him as the official leader, and thus the buck lay on him as to Yosef’s doom and Yaakov’s ultimate pain.

The turning point in Yehudah’s life came when his daughter in law Tamar, chose not to openly embarrass Yehudah. Rather than publicly exposing Yehudah as the father of her yet unborn twin babies, she sent a cryptic message that hinted at the identity of the father. Only Yehudah could decipher this message and once he realised, he exclaimed “Tsadka Mimeni” – she is more righteous then me. With his announcement despite the embarrassment of being wrong he transformed himself into a selfless individual who focussed on the bigger picture.

This story grew on Yehudah, eventually developing into the leader that was able to sacrifice himself into slavery in place of Binyamin.

This is the making of a leader.

Let’s take two wonderful concepts from our sages that help fortify this idea.

The Mishna in Keilim 17:13 speaks of how all sea fish skins can be used to make pure vessels. The only exception is the Kelev Mayim – literally the ‘sea dog’ loosely understood to be something like a seal or a sea lion. The Mishna asks why? And explains that it escapes to dry land when being chased.  Thus it is no longer considered a sea animal and takes on the status of a land animal whose skin is considered impure.

Rabbi Gifter Z’l asked why, if the animal spends most of its life in the water, do we place so much emphasis on where it goes when it is being chased. Surely its status should follow the majority of its life in the water. Why base its status on the rare occasions it is being chased?


Rabbi Gifter offers an awesome understanding.

Where we go to and how we act under pressure tells us who we really are. No one’s essence is defined by what do as second nature. It’s great we do good acts so well. But that doesn’t define us. What defines us is when we are being chased, when the heat is on, where do we run to and how do we react?


Let us look at a further idea that enhances this awareness.

The Gemara in Menachot (29a) cites a Braytawhich lists three things Moshe found difficult to understand, and which the Torah therefore describes with the word “zeh”, to indicate that Hashem showed Moshe with His finger: 1. The Menorah; 2. Rosh Chodesh (the New Moon); 3. The eight forbidden Sheratzim (rodents). Tosfot adds that the Half a Shekel coin was also difficult for Moshe to comprehend.

Looking at these commandments in the Torah and their wording the Vilna Gaon offers a brilliant interpretation.

What’s the first letter of those three words?

Menorah – Mem, Sheratzim/Shekalim – Shin, Rosh Chodesh – introduced by the Torah with the word Hachodesh – Heh. Together they spell the name Moshe!

How we respond in a difficult situation defines our essence.. Furthermore, looking at the last three letters of these words we note that they also spell Moshe!

The true sign of who you are is how you respond to any given situation, from beginning to end.

If it worked for Moshe Rabbenu surely it will work for us.

How we do when we hear news, when we find ourselves in tough situations, the changes that we make, tells us who we are.


Before his death, Yaakov assembled his sons and blessed them, sharing with each a vision relating to their destiny.

Yaakov told Yehuda that his descendants would possess the sceptre of kingship.

True leaders don’t control their people they inspire them to do great things.

It is in this Parasha that Yehudah earned the leadership – Hayta Yehudah Lekadsho Yisrael Mamshelotav – it is when Yehudah made a Kidush Hashem and stood instead of his brother Binyamin rectifying his past involvement with the sale of Yosef, that he became a Moshel – ruler in Am Yisrael.

We are all leaders in our own right. Whether we lead a company, a team of people, a group of friends, our families or even just ourselves. Yehudah’s actions are there to show us we are defined by those tough moments in life when we decide where to run and how to act.

At those times in life be the leader, make the decision, know the way, go the way and show the way.

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