Notes from the Newcastle One-Day Limmud 2005
First Among Equals
Who will the משיח (Messiah) be? Start from the basis that he will be a descendant of King David, which means the tribe of Yehudah. Why does Yehudah rise to the top? There is a political thread running all the way through the תנ״ך [Bible] and beyond. Why was Yehudah picked? Yehudah was the fourth child of Yaakov. And why isn't Yosef in the running? Or Benjamin, who was Yaakov's favourite when Yosef was thought dead.
Consider first Reuven, Yaakov's firstborn. Now the firstborn in Jewish tradition doesn't always get the birthright—though they do generally get their just desserts!—that Reuven's father's and grandfather's older brother, for example, didn't end up with their birthrights.
Now Reuven sleeps with Bilhah—the handmaid whom Rachel, Yaakov's favourite wife—who has just died—gave to Yaakov when Rachel thought she could not bear. Why would Reuven do this? Reuven's supporters say he is doing this to make a point—that Leah, Reuven's mother, is still alive, and that Yaakov shouldn't neglect her. But it was not a particularly subtle way of making the point. Maybe Reuven was trying to take over.
Does Yaakov ever forgive Reuven for this? No—this is in his deathbed scene (Gen. 49). He says "you should have been the greatest"—in public, in front of all the other children.
There are various incidents after the Bilhah incident where Reuven's brothers don't think he has the potential to be the leader. Reuven didn't want to kill Yosef. When Yosef is taken, Reuven says "what am I going to do?" But it's not Reuven who successfully convinces them not to kill him, it's Yehudah. They don't unite behind him; they are looking elsewhere.
Now consider the story of Koraḥ's rebellion. Koraḥ needs support; he gets it from Dathan and company, who are also Reuvenites. They are disaffected with the leadership; trying to prove they have leadership potential.
By the end of the Torah with Moshe's deathbed blessing, Reuven is not at the start of the list of tribes, and Moshe's blessing to Reuven is to say "let Reuven live", because by then his numbers are so few. Moreover, they settle on the east of the Jordan, the closest to foreign forces and the most at risk.
The last time we hear Reuven mentioned is when Devorah criticises them for not coming to her aid. After that they were either wiped out or assimilated through intermarriage with Moab.
Shimon we first encounter, along with Levi, in the story of the revenge for the rape of Dina. The story shows that Shimon is hot-headed, violent and capable of murder. But Yaakov does not criticise them for their immoral behaviour. He says "you have made me odious in the eyes of these people"—he is pragmatist, not moralist. Does Yaakov forgive or forget this incident either? Again the answer is no, as revealed by his deathbed blessing: "I will divide them in Yaakov and scatter them in Israel." (Also, why was it them and not not Reuven who launched the revenge attack?)
Shimon is imprisoned by Yosef in Egypt. This is because Yosef knows he is dangerous—prone to violence. Yosef knew it was Shimon and Levi who were trying to have him killed. This is his own personal revenge.
Where also does Shimon blot his copy book? After the Bil'am incident, when the Midianite and Moabite woman infiltrate the camp, there is a prince from the tribe of Shimon called Zimri who parades his new acquisition in front of Aharon and Moshe. They do nothing; it's Pinḥas who acts. What sort of leadership is the tribe of Shimon to do this knowing G-d does not approve? Also, to take a Midianite girl—like Moshe's own wife, so Moshe can't complain in impunity.
Yaakov said on his deathbed he will split Shimon from Levi. This is precisely what happens here: Pinḥas is a Levite.
Between the two censuses in the Torah, the tribe of Shimon goes down from 59,300 men of fighting age to 22,200 after this incident and the ensuing plague—evidence of Divine displeasure. (The total death toll from all the tribes in the plague was 24,000.)
What happened to Shimon in the end? The tribe settled in the south, in the desert—as far from the centre as Reuven. In the book of Joshua the tribe of Yehudah given too much land, and some as a result was reallotted to the tribe of Shimon—they don't ever get land in their own right! And they are not mentioned at all in Moshe's deathbed blessings.
Levi, though he also took part in the revenge for Dina, and was cursed by Yaakov on his deathbed, however, comes up turnups. Like Shimon the tribe is scattered—but rather than being assimilated, they get scattered cities. This is because their function by this time is to be Divine intermediaries: the curse works to their benefit!
How did they get there? Why does G-d choose Moshe and Aharon and Miriam from this tribe with such a bad track record? There is no explanation in Tanach. But an explanation is given in the Midrash (Genesis Rabbah):
Yaakov was the head of the family when they go down to Egypt. After his death, the leadership passed to Yosef because he is the PM of Egypt. After his death, Reuven; then when he dies, Shimon, and when he dies, Levi. You would have thought Yehudah, who comes next, but his time was yet to come. (So why not Issachar? There is no explanation for this either.)
We celebrate the history of the tribe of Levi every year on a post-Biblical basis: Chanukah—the last attempt by a tribe to try and assume leadership of the whole of the people.
Shimon and Yehudah, the sons of Mattithyahu assume the positions of Cohen Gadol and Ethnarch, even though they were not qualified to do so: they were not of the line from which the Cohen Gadol had been taken. This was heretical—a power play.
And so to Yosef and his children. Yosef is Yaakov's favourite. He is the first child of the favourite wife, who has had problems giving birth. Yaakov can't resist having favourites—but he ends up paying a heavy price.
It's not clear from the text whether, at the age of seventeen, Yosef understands why he is being treated the way he is. He is not then mature enough to know how to relate to his brothers. Later he grows up—describing, for example, his ability to interpret dreams as not a talent of his, but a gift from G-d. More maturity is shown when he resists the temptations of Potiphar's wife. This time he does the right thing, and thought he is punished again, this gives him more time to reflect on it and decide what his talent is for.
Ultimately, when freed he is ready to face his family. This is the role he has been prepared for—to save his family. Why did he never contact his family during his years of exile? The answer is he couldn't until he was in a position to help them. (Which is also why he wanted Binyamin brought down—to save him too, his only full brother.)
Yaakov swaps Yosef's sons around for their blessing. And sure enough the history of the two turns out to be what he foretold. Ephraim takes the leadership—Yehoshua. He is rewarded with the right to enter the land —him and Calev only of their generation.
Solomon turns out to be a big disappointment. When ten of the twelve tribes secede, Yeravam is picked by G-d to succeed—Ephraim.
What about Menashe? He has a role, but not as clear a one. Eliyahu and Elisha probably come from Menashe's land on the east of the Jordan. Also Yiftaḥ.
Yehudah, too, has his faults, but what is it about his character. The story of Tamar—Yehudah is worried about the lives of his children. He publically apologies for his mistake—the sign of a great leader. One of her twins that result, Perez, is the ancestor of the Moshiaḥ (and she isn't even Jewish!).
Yehudah keeps the other brothers from killing Yosef. It is Yehudah and not Reuven who persuades Yaakov into letting him take Binyamin down to Egypt.
Who breaks Yaakov's heart by not taking Binyamin back to Canaan? Yehudah! Yosef knows he has met his match.
Yehudah produces a man who stands up against the other spies: Calev. And he conquers the first city, Hevron, which becomes the first capital of David.
Yehudah leads the tribes after the death of Yehudah.
What about Binyamin? Shaul and Ishbaal, the first two kings, are Benjaminites. But Shaul falls because he does not kill all the Amalekites. Binyamin redeems himself because we are told that Mordechai and Esther are from the tribe of Binyamin.
So why David for the Moshiaḥ? There are two instances in the Book of Shmuel where Shaul is at David's mercy and David's man say to him that he should kill him and people will pick him, and David says he is not allowed to touch G-d's anointed. Even though he knew it is his destiny to succeed—because Shmuel anointed him—he is not allowed to force G-d's hands (which is why we are not allowed to try and speed the coming of the Moshiaḥ, and why some Charedim are opposed to the state of Israel). Shaul is still sacrosanct. Notwithstanding all David's problems, that for the speaker clinches what it is about David's character.
In rabbinic tradition they did not forget this—there was to be a Moshiaḥ ben Yosef (i.e. Ephraim) who would come before the Moshiaḥ ben David. This was how they reconciled the tragedy of Bar Kochba: he was not of the Davidic line.
[lethargic_man's comments: A nice little analysis, but I'm not sure I like one of the theological concepts that underlie it: namely, that the ultimate success of tens of thousands of ancient Israelites depended on the behaviour of their tribal ancestors. Doesn't Judaism hold that people are rewarded or punished on their own merit and not that of their fathers?]