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Which overrides, personal spiritual growth or public activism?
(Likkutei Sichos Vol. 15 Sicha 3)
In this week’s Parsha, Parshas Vayechi, we learn of the passing of our forefather Yaakov. Prior to his passing, Yaakov blessed each one of his children with blessings that represented their personal future as well as that of their tribes and the position of power that they would hold amongst the general nation of the Jewish people. Who would be King? Who would be a priest? Would receive two portions of inheritance? Some of the brothers, were scorned by their father at this prior to death blessing ceremony, and some lost privileges that they should have received due to being older in age. For example, Reuvein who was destined to receive the portion of the firstborn, as well as the monarchy and priesthood, lost all of these privileges to others of his siblings. Yosef received the double portion inheritance right of the firstborn, while Yehuda received the kingship, and Levi received the priesthood. What did Reuvein do wrong to lose all of these important privileges and what did these other siblings do right to receive them? In this talk, the Rebbe focuses on this very question, strengthening it with what seems to be major deficiencies in the behavior of Yehuda versus Reuvein, and that in truth when judging by behavior Reuvein was more deserving to receive it than Yehuda. The lesson derived from this talk is one of great importance for our generation, and emphasizes the responsibility of individuals to worry about the needs of the public and the needs of his fellow Jew, even if it may compromise in his ability to grow to higher personal spiritual heights in his service of G-d.
Explorations of the Sicha:
1. Which privileges was Reuvein meant to receive and how did he lose them?
2. What did Yehuda do that allowed him to merit to receive the privilege of having the monarchy?
3. What was the main sin of Reuvein in him switching his father’s bed?
4. What qualities are needed for a king on behalf of his rulership and governing?
1. Yaakov informs his son Reuvein that he has lost the privileges of the double portion inheritance, priesthood, and monarchy:
Reuvein, who was the first child to be blessed by Yaakov, was quite surprised to discover that in this blessing his father had revoked several privileges that he was due to receive as part of his firstborn rights. He lost the privilege of the double portion inheritance usually given to the firstborn son, as well as his rights of receiving the priesthood and monarchy. Now, what did Reuvein do so terrible to make him lose all of these important rights? So for this we must turn to Rashi:
The verse states in the blessing of Yaakov to his son Reuvein, “Reuvein, you are my firstborn son.. You had greater elevation/Se’es and greater strength/Oz, although since you have been quick like water you will not receive extra.” This seemingly cryptic verse is explained by Rashi one stanza at a time. On the words You had greater elevation/Se’es Rashi explains that the word Se’es/elevation is related to the word Nesias Kapayim, and that Yaakov was telling his son Reuvein that he was fit to have received the priesthood. On the words “and greater strength/Oz” Rashi explains that the term Oz refers to kingship, and that Yaakov was telling his son Reuvein that he was fit to also receive the monarchy of the Jewish people. On the words “Pachaz Kamayim Al Tivater/ although since you have been quick like water you will not receive extra” Rashi explains that Reuvein’s quick and hasty decision to switch the bed of his father to the tent of his mother Leah, which was done out of anger, is what has caused him to lose all the above privileges that he was fit to receive.
The Targum and Midrash add a further privilege that was lost by Reuvein which is also the privilege of the firstborn rights. The Targum explains the Reuvein was fit to receive three privileges including 1) the firstborn rights 2) the priesthood and 3) the kingship and he forfeited all of them. The taking of the firstborn rights from Reuvein is in fact mentioned in an explicit verse in Scripture which states that “and the children of Reuvein, the firstborn of Israel, when he desecrated his father’s bed his firstborn rights were given to the children of Yosef.”
A question on Rashi-why does he omit the privilege of the firstborn rights? It remains to be understood why Rashi chose to record only two of the privileges that were meant to be given to Reuvein, and omitted the privilege of the firstborn rights of a double inheritance, which was also meant to be given to Reuvein and was forfeited, as mentioned in the Targum? Why did Rashi not feel this privilege to be of importance to mention and that it too was forfeited due to Reuvein’s anger and hasty decision making? The fact that he was the firstborn, is the entire reason for why these privileges were destined to him to begin with, and hence omitting this major point is quite puzzling.
We will now discuss to whom these privileges were given to in the end.
2. Yaakov’s blessing to Yehuda:
On the verse, “Gur Aryeh Yehuda, Miteref Beniy Alisa/a lion cub Yehuda, from the prey of my son you have been elevated,” Rashi explains to mean as follows: Yaakov was telling his son Yehuda that his original suspicions that Yehuda was the one to have killed Yosef are now expunged, and he has now removed himself from any suspicion. Rashi then continues as follows, “my son, you have been elevated, you removed yourself [from Yosef’s death] by saying what monetary profit will there be for us killing him. Likewise, when Tamar was about to be killed you confessed to being the father and saved her life.” Thus, in this verse Yaakov is praising his son Yehuda for his good faith and honesty in helping save two lives, the life of Yosef and the life of Tamar. Now, in exchange for these praiseworthy acts, Yehuda was given the kingship, as Rashi explains on the words “A lion cub” which refers to the kingdom of Dovid and Shlomo.
The above is regarding the privileges of kingship, however, the privilege of priesthood was given to the tribe of Levi, while the firstborn privileges were given over to the tribe of Yosef.
3. Why was Yehuda given the privilege of kingship?
What remains to be understood in the above matter is to why Yehuda merited him to receive the kingship instead of Reuvein. When we analyze the behaviors and actions of Yehuda versus Reuvein it seems that Yehuda performed deeds that are much more sinful than his brother Reuvein, and that even in the good deeds that he performed, Reuvein performed them better. While Yehuda did indeed convince his brothers to take Yosef out of the pit and sell him as a slave for the sake of monetary gain, Reuvein had much greater intents and plans. Reuvein was the one who originally convinced his brothers to throw Yosef into the pit rather than murder him, and his intent of doing so was so he can later come back and help Yosef escape. Whose acts were greater? That of Yehuda which caused his brother to be sold in slavery and whose entire intent was for monetary gain, or that of Reuvein who saved his brother from certain death and intended on setting him free? Likewise, when we compare the repentance of Yehuda from his sin with Tamar to that of Reuvein’s repentance for his sin of switching his father’s bed, once again Reuvein seems to have the advantage. Yehuda was practically forced to confess his sin, and that he was the father of the twins, as lack of doing so would cost the lives of a mother and his two sons who she was carrying. Yehuda made a split-second decision to confess to save these lives. The extent of his repentance was short, and well expected with the circumstances. However, regarding Reuvein we find that he spent many years repenting for his sin of switching his father’s bed, as can be seen from Rashi’s commentary that the reason why he was not present by Yosef’s sale is because he was busy fasting and repenting for his sin of switching his father’s bed. The sale of Yosef took place nine years after he switched his father’s bed and hence, we see that for nine straight years Reuvein was still repenting. Thus, both in the act of trying to save Yosef and in the act of repentance Reuvein’s actions were superior to that of his brother Yehuda. Accordingly, it does not make any sense as to why Reuvein lost the privilege of kingship and priesthood and had the kingship given to someone who seems to have been given to a person of even greater iniquities.
4. The true reason Reuvein lost the kingship and priesthood:
The answer to our above query can be understood through us first properly understanding why Reuvein lost the privileges of kingship to begin with. From the outset, it seems that he lost these privileges because of the sin of switching his father’s bed, however in truth a careful analysis shows that his loss of the privileges is associated more with the failures he expressed in the process of making the decision, rather then with the actual sin itself. In his commentary, Rashi emphasizes that the loss of privileges was because he was too quick to show his anger, Pachaz Kamayim. It is precisely the quick judgment that was done instinctively due to anger which caused Reuvein to lose the privileges of the kingship and priesthood. Now, what is the reason that specifically this act of being too quick to judgment should make Reuvein lose his rights to the kingship and priesthood? This will be explained next.
5. A king and priest must contain high social qualities and much patience:
The entire purpose of a king is to lead his country and deal with its citizens. A king who is very quick to judgment will make vital leadership errors, as well as possibly endanger lives of innocent civilians. Likewise, the priesthood involves teaching the Jewish people Torah, as it states in Scripture that the Jewish people should come to the priests to be taught the Torah of G-d. It is for this reason that Reuvein lost these privileges due to his quick show of anger and judgment. A king and a priest must be patient and allow themselves to process all the facts so they can make proper decisions involving others. Reuvein, in his quick act of judgment, showed a lack in this most vital quality necessary and therefore the privileges were removed from him.
6. Why Reuvein lost the firstborn rights:
The above only explains why Reuvein lost the rights of priesthood and kingship, but does not explain why he also lost the rights of the firstborn. One can explain that the loss of the right to the firstborn was due to the actual sin itself of switching the beds, and thus Reuvein received two sets of punishments. One punishment received [i.e. the loss of the firstborn rights] was a punishment for the actual sin of switching the beds, while the second set of punishments received [i.e. lost of kingship and priesthood] was a consequence of him expressing lack of qualities of leadership. This is why Rashi does not make mention in his commentary of the loss of the firstborn privileges, as it is not connected to the main part of his commentary dealing with the consequences of Reuvein being too hasty in judgment. What now is left to be explained is why specifically Yehuda was given the kingship even though he was seemingly less righteous than his brother Reuvein.
7. Why Yehuda merited to receive the kingship:
Although in theory Yehuda was seemingly less righteous than his brother Reuvein both in his attempts to save Yosef and in his repentance for his actions with Tamar, in practice he accomplished a lot more than did his brother Reuvein. While Reuvein’s secret plan was to save his brother Yosef and bring him back to his father, he was practically unsuccessful in this, and part of the reason for this is because instead of him staying with his brothers to keep an eye on Yosef, he went off to continue to repent his sin of switching his father’s bed. Reuvein was more worried about his personal penitence for a sin committed nine years earlier, then he was for his brother Yosef’s safety, who he should have been supervising for the sake of having him saved as was his final plan. In contrast to this, Yehuda who certainly had less holy and altruistic intentions in the sale of his brother was practically able to get him out of harm’s way and save his life. Likewise, the repentance of Yehuda in the story with Tamar ended up saving the life of Tamar and their two sons. When it comes to qualities of kingship, what matters is not so much one’s theoretical philosophies and ideals but rather one’s practical application of leadership in being able to get things done. In this, Yehuda certainly had the advantage over his brother in the above actions, and for it he received the kingship.
8. The divine lesson:
There is a very practical and important lesson in our divine service that we can learn from the above. From the fact that although Reuvein was more righteous than Yehuda but nonetheless lost the rights of kingship due to his deficiencies in dealing with others, to which Yehuda greater excelled, we can understand that there is an advantage in dealing with others over self-improvement. While self-improvement of course is necessary and important, it should not come at the expense of helping another. It is better that a person accomplishes less spiritual growth with greater influence on others, than to soar to heights of spiritual growth but fail to benefit the public. In simple words, it is better that one be involved in helping other Jews in their growth in Torah and Mitzvos, despite it coming at the expense of his personal spiritual growth and learning which will need to be more limited as a result, then to completely dedicate himself to only his spiritual growth and ignore the needs of the public. Reuvein’s involvement in his own spiritual growth in expense of watching over his brother Yosef is what led Yosef to eventually being sold to Egypt, and the exile of the Jewish people to the land. However, through Yehuda’s actions of saving Tamar and his two sons, will come the Messiah who is a descendent from Peretz, the son of Tamar and Yehuda.
 Vayechi 49:3-4
 Unkelus and Yonason Ben Uziel on the verse Vayechi 49:3-4
 Tanchuma 9 and Bereishis Raba 98:4; 99:6
 Divrei Hayamim 1:5-1
 Vayechi 49:9
 See Divrei Hayimim ibid and Rashi Vayishlach 35:23
 Vayeishev 37:22
 Vayeishev 37:29
 Shoftim 17:9