Successors to Jacob, Successors to Arafat

Genesis 47:28-50:26

By Deborah Slavitt

Published December 24, 2004, issue of December 24, 2004.
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In this last portion in Genesis, the children of Israel are on the verge of becoming a people. The next portion opens the book of Exodus with Pharaoh afraid of the potential might of the people (Exodus 1:9) he calls “Ivrim,” and it is as a people that the Ivrim, the children of Israel, go up out of Egypt. The birth struggles of this shift from family to people begin way back with Abraham. Again and again, families thrash out the patterns that will determine their future. What captured my notice this year is how the Palestinians, as they flounder toward peoplehood, are caught in the toils of these same patterns limned by the Torah.

Take, for instance, the week we were reading Chayyei Sarah. That week, Yasser Arafat was hovering between life and death. In the Torah portion, we watched Abraham put his affairs in order before death. In the haftarah, we watched old King David, near death, make one last political move to quash one of his sons in favor of another. As in this week’s portion, Vayechi, the sons represent the future. Unfortunately, the future seems to hold political manipulation and bitter factional competition for power. Those same things greeted my eyes when I switched from The Tanakh to The Boston Globe to read the news of Arafat’s protégés and potential successors maneuvering around his bedside and his soon-to-be-widow. The patterns in The Tanakh forced me to look carefully at the patterns I saw unfolding in the present-day Middle East. The correspondences are not one-to-one; the lesson is not easily drawn. But the contrasts and comparisons are striking indeed.

Fast-forward to this week’s portion, Vayechi. Perspicacious Jacob sees to the core of each of his sons, and it is clear whom he favors to lead his children, the other clans of the federation. Likewise clear is his perception of the blunders and character flaws of each son. In the haftarah, we watched old King David at the last moments of his life instruct Solomon, the chosen one, in vengeance and prevarication. And in the world of today, the protégés and potential successors to Arafat posture and maneuver and try to differentiate themselves in advance of the upcoming elections in the territories of the Palestinian Authority. It is not clear whether the aftermath of Arafat will be a continuation of the corruption, violence and venom he developed to a high art and then couldn’t shed, or whether there will actually be an opportunity for a different kind of leadership for the Palestinians, who deserve better than what Arafat gave them.

Perhaps the story in Torah has a pattern to help us see the possible directions? Joseph, the older son of the favored mother, is clearly an emotional favorite with his father, Jacob. But, to our surprise, it is Judah, a middle child from the unfavored mother, who is the political favorite to become a leader of his people. We could say that the Narrator has 20/20 hindsight, because we know that the tribe of Judah produced King David, and that it was in fact the tribe and lands of Judah (along with tiny Benjamin) that survived the annihilation of the northern tribes. The pattern in the Torah portion invites us to consider the comparisons between Joseph and Judah, the north of the Promised Land and its south, Rachel and Leah, the exiled versus the homeboy.

Why Judah, of all the brothers? Is it perhaps because he learned from his mistakes and changed his actions to correspond to his learning? Reread the story of Judah from the sale of Joseph to the end of Genesis, and you see someone who takes his responsibility for his brothers seriously, even the least of them. You see someone who feels bound to make up for past corruption, and who respects the sorrow of his aging father. These are the qualities that describe the other favorite son, the one who will be the eponymous brother for our entire people. After all, as the midrash acutely puts it, no one calls us “Shimonim” after Simeon, but rather “Yahudim” after Judah.

These qualities also describe the good leader of a people made up of diverse factions. In Torah, the children of Israel are about to become a people. While in 1969, Golda Meir could say, “There is no such thing as a Palestinian people,” in 2004 they have walked inexorably toward becoming just that. Who will be the favorite son of the Palestinian people? What qualities will they choose in their leader? Corruption for personal gain, which disqualified Reuben? Violence and implacability, like Simeon and Levi? Or learning, changing and moderation, such as we find in Judah?

Deborah Slavitt is rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel of Merrimack Valley.

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