The final six parshiyot of the book of Bereishit are dominated by the intense rivalry between two brothers vying for leadership and ultimately for Jewish monarchy. Their conflict first erupts in Parshat Vayeishev as Yehuda instigates the sale of his bullied brother to a passing caravan of merchants. This faceoff between Yosef and Yehuda highlights two very different personalities, and poses two very different models of leadership.
Yosef is a kinetic personality who uncontrollably attracts everyone in his orbit. Whether at home with his family, managing his master’s affairs, or in prison with fellow inmates, his talent and his dynamic personality are unavoidable. The Torah describes him as “ro’eh et echav batzon,” which at a literal level describes his shepherding skills. However the phrase also implies that he “shepherded his brothers,” and without question he is center of gravity around which the entire family revolves. His charisma doesn’t only affect his brothers but draws the attention of a married woman drawn to a Jewish slave. Ultimately, Yosef’s magnetism attracts unwanted attention and subjects him to one of the greatest moral trials in the entire book of Bereishit. Overcoming this challenge establishes him as Yosef the Tzadik.
Of course, this man man of spirit and kineticism also harbors great dreams. Our dreams are reflections of our grandest hopes and aspirations, and the more passionate our hearts the more fervent our dreams. Aware of his unique talent, Yosef dreams of serving his family and crafting history. His two dreams are each projections of a deep inner conviction that he has been “chosen” and endowed with the requisite abilities to drive Jewish history.
Healthy ambition is a vital trait for personal welfare and self-esteem. Ambition is “self-affirming” of our inner talents and personal abilities. Ambition reinforces a trust in our innate abilities as well as a belief in a better tomorrow that we believe can actively craft. Beyond invigorating personal confidence, ambition fuels progress and the advance of the human condition. It is one of the most powerful impulses that God implanted in the human imagination.
However, ambition can also be dangerous, and managing our ambition often proves to be very treacherous. Often our ambition masks itself as “nobility of purpose” or ideological conviction. Ambition seduces us into an unwavering belief that our talents and our leadership are absolutely irreplaceable. Convinced of our own “irreplaceability,” we often cross moral red lines and trample upon others in our “noble pursuit” of the greater good that our ambition targets. Yosef’s dreams ultimately become a moral trap: assured of his inevitable future leadership role, he manipulates his brothers to advance those original dreams. He casts one brother into jail while casting the entire family into abject panic in his relentless pursuit of his dreams. Ultimately, and to his great credit, realizing the steep price in human suffering, he stands down and forfeits his own personal ambition while embracing and reconstituting his brothers.
Ambition doesn’t only lead to moral compromises; it often blinds us to the dreams and hopes of other people. Ironically, by the end of Parshat Vayeishev, Yosef realizes that other people dream as well, and that his personal fate will be determined by their hopes and desires and not merely his own life’s trajectory. By the end of the parsha, Yosef exits his own dreams and enters the inner world of others.
By contrast, Yehuda doesn’t dream and isn’t a particularly charismatic figure. He has absolutely no premonitions of future glory or of future leadership. He isn’t a dreamer but a “reactor,” as he consistently responds to unfolding challenges and provides solutions. He confesses his role in the Tamar episode despite the inevitable mortification and shame this admission will yield. During the “Egyptian crisis,” he personally guarantees Binyamin’s safe return, allowing Yaakov to release Binyamin—a decision that ultimately restores Yosef to the family. Most dramatically, courageous Yehuda, acting alone, confronts this apparently intimidating tyrant who has threatened to imprison the brothers. Yehuda consistently reacts to crisis and assumes responsibility, rather than dreaming of future hypotheticals.
The contrast between Yosef—a man of ambition and charisma—and Yehuda—a man of responsibility and accountability—is showcased by the difference in their clothing. Yosef wears a resplendently colored robe that both attracts attention as well as elicits envy. His clothing—a symbol of his charisma—is ultimately drenched in “seething blood” by his resentful brothers.
Even stripped of his flamboyant coat, Yosef continues to fascinate others through his clothing. Unable to entice Yosef, the master’s wife is left clutching the handsome slave’s clothing in her hands. Unsuccessful in her seduction, she receives her “consolation prize”—the clothing of this irrepressibly charismatic leader. By contrast, Yehuda’s cloak is colorless (at the very least its color isn’t identified) but serves as a sign of responsibility and commitment. He delivers it to Tamar as collateral for the money he owes. His clothing is paired alongside his staff and his insignia—all symbols of commitment and the responsibility to “keep your word.” Ultimately, the submitting of these three symbols of “accountability” as evidence forces Yehuda to assume responsibility for Tamar, thereby saving an innocent life. Yosef’s clothing transmits charisma but leads to both a staged murder and a moral endangerment, whereas Yehuda’s clothing connotes responsibility and commitment and ultimately saves a life.
In the modern world of self-promotion and dynamic personalities we are often attracted to charismatic leaders who share their passion and inspire us with their dreams. Without question, passion, ambition and charisma are vital for hope, imagination and human progress. However, true leadership is more often expressed in quiet but dependable acts of responsibility and accountability. Leadership doesn’t lie primarily in articulating future dreams but in supporting people in a world in which dreams are often shattered.
Rabbi Moshe Taragin is a rebbe at Yeshivat Har Etzion located in Gush Etzion, where he resides.