A King-Size Mistake
"...foremost in rank and foremost in power. Water-like impetuosity - you
cannot be foremost, because you mounted your father's bed..."(49:3,4)
Yaakov rebukes Reuvein for acting in an impetuous manner when moving his
father's couch to Leah's tent. As a result of this action, Reuvein loses his
right to the monarchy and Priesthood for which he was destined.1
Why does Yaakov condemn Reuvein's impetuosity? Would the sin not have been
greater if Reuvein would have acted in a calculated manner? Does acting
impetuously not mitigate the transgression?
The Torah teaches that it is prohibited to remind a penitent as to his past
transgressions.2 Reuvein is the quintessential penitent; the
Torah relates that Reuvein was not present when the brothers sold Yosef, for
he had returned to his sackcloth and fasting to atone for his transgression
concerning moving his father's couch.3 Why then does Yaakov
rebuke Reuvein for a transgression for which he had already been repenting
for at least thirty-nine years? Why is the quid-pro-quo for Reuvein's
transgression the loss of his leadership position in Klal Yisroel?
When repenting for a transgression which we have committed, we very often
focus on the transgression, rather than the character flaw which is at the
root of the transgression. Yaakov's intention in rebuking Reuvein was not to
condemn him for the transgression for which Reuvein had already repented;
Yaakov was identifying for Reuvein the character flaw which caused him to
commit the transgression, impetuosity. Impetuous behavior is symptomatic of
a lack of self-control.
This is not the first time we find Yaakov censuring Reuvein for behaving in
a manner which lacks forethought. When the brothers explain to Yaakov that
Yosef has incarcerated Shimon and is refusing to release him unless they
bring Binyamin before him, Reuvein offers his own two sons' lives as a
guarantee that he will return Binyamin home safely. Here too, Yaakov
admonishes Reuvein for his foolish suggestion.4 Clearly, Yaakov is sensitive
to Reuvein's character flaw, his impetuosity.
In addition to effectively controlling his subjects, one of the primary
functions of a leader is to teach his subjects self-control. For this to be
possible, the leader must himself project and image which reflects the
highest standards of self-control. Therefore, Reuvein, who has displayed
that he behaves in an unrestrained manner, is denied the opportunity to have
the monarchy stem from his descendants. Similarly, the responsibility for
the sanctity of the Priesthood can only be placed in the hands of a person
who epitomizes self-control, for holiness manifests itself wherever
self-control is found.5
1. 49:4, See Rashi and Ramban 2. Shmos 22:20..3. 37:29, See Rashi 4.
42:7, See Rashi verse 38 and Ramban 5. Rashi Vayikra 19:2
The Lion's Burden
"And white-toothed from milk" (49:12)
Many commentaries interpret this passage literally, as a
description of Yehuda's suitability for royalty, i.e. that he was a man of
regal appearance.1 The Talmud, however, offers the following
homiletic interpretation: The person who makes his teeth white by smiling
affectionately to his fellow man, has done more good than the person who
offers his fellow man milk to drink. Rather than interpreting the verse
"u'leven shinayim maychalav" - "teeth white from milk", one should read
"u'levone shinayim maychalav" - "showing the whiteness of your teeth is more
beneficial than milk".2 What is the connection between the
homiletic and literal interpretations? Why should this message be relayed in
the blessing of Yehuda?
The Talmud teaches that were it not that Hashem provided for the animals,
each animal would be suited for a particular profession. The fox would be
most competent as a storekeeper and the lion as a porter.3 The
Maharal explains that the fox symbolizes shrewdness, a trait necessary for a
storekeeper, to convince his customers to purchase his wares. A lion
symbolizes strength, and therefore, is physically suited for the job of a
It is difficult to understand why the lion, who is the symbol of
sovereignty, the lion being the symbol of Yehudah5, would be
depicted as a porter, which is from the least respectable of professions.
Chazal must be teaching us that the unique nature of Yehuda's sovereignty is
that he is the ultimate servant of the people. Yehuda does not beat his
subjects into submission to fulfill his own agenda; rather, he serves and
caters to the needs of his people, submitting himself to their agenda.
Therefore, the lion is appropriately described as a porter, who is willing
to carry the burden of all those whom he serves.
Yehuda's nature is aptly depicted in last week's parsha, when he is willing
to become a slave to Yosef so that Binyamin may go free.6 Yehuda
sets aside his own personal agenda for the well-being of another.
The notion of greeting everyone with a genuine smile so that they will feel
appreciated and significant reflects the same quality portrayed by Yehuda. A
person is required to set aside all thoughts or worries which trouble him,
and relay a genuine sense of joy for the well-being of another.
1. Rav Saadya Gaon, Bchor Shor, Akeida 2. Kesuvos 111b 3. Kiddushin 82b
4. Chiddushei Agados ibid. 5. 49:9 6. 44:33