Parshat Vayigash: Genesis 44:18-47:27; Ezekiel 37:15-28.
In October 2000, the market research company Roper Starch conducted a poll for the Boston Brewing Company, best known for Sam Adams beer. They asked which of the two presidential candidates the poll’s respondents would rather sit down and have a beer with. As unscientific as the poll was, something about that resonated with the American public; now, more than 20 years later, political pundits regularly speculate about candidates’ electability based on this “beer question.”
In her book Politics of Authenticity in Presidential Campaigns, 1976-2008, Erica J. Seifert argues that the beer question measures a candidate’s personability and authenticity, which are undoubtedly important qualities in determining whom to vote for. But the Jewish tradition posits a more important quality, one that a reading of this week’s portion brings to light.
Ramban (Spain, 1194-1270) establishes a principle that he returns to often. He writes that the stories of our ancestors serve as the symbolic underpinnings of the later characteristics of their descendants.
It’s true that early in his development we see Judah fail to carry out effective leadership. In Genesis 37:26-27, he convinces his brothers not to kill Joseph … only to suggest trafficking him to a passing merchant caravan instead. But he learns from his mistakes and becomes the leader that stands up to the bullying manipulations of the Egyptian viceroy (his long-lost brother) to ensure the safety of his youngest brother Benjamin (whom Joseph demanded the brothers bring to Egypt despite the fact that it pained their father).
But Judah’s leadership doesn’t simply consist of him standing up to Joseph. Judah’s effectiveness lies in the tactic he uses as he confronts Joseph. In the beginning of this week’s portion, you’ll notice that Judah doesn’t say, “My father will experience such sorrow if Benjamin doesn’t come back with us.” He says instead, “Then your servant, my father, said to us … ‘If Benjamin doesn’t return, I will experience such sorrow.’”
He actually speaks to Joseph in his father’s voice. The ultimate resolution of Judah’s development from failed leader to effective leader is demonstrated through his empathy, through his ability to recognize the grief that his father is experiencing and feel that pain with him and to convey that pain to Joseph as though he himself is his father, feeling that pain in that very moment.
And so, in the coming weeks, as the new year begins and our elected officials take their oaths of office, let’s learn from Judah’s example and demand from our leaders not simply authenticity or integrity, but empathy, the ability to walk in the shoes of their constituents, to experience our pains with us, and, God willing, to celebrate our joys with us as well.
Rabbi Michael Langer is a Jewish Studies instructor at Frankel Jewish Academy in West Bloomfield.