One of the goals of Yaakov’s speech to his children is to appoint a leader, if not right away, then in the long run. The default assumption seems to be that leadership is based on seniority. This is why, one by one, Yaakov describes how the oldest three brothers disqualified themselves. Conversely, Yehudah’s positive leadership qualities are emphasized, and Yaakov tells him that his descendants will be the rulers of the Jewish people. Yaakov Avinu is thus giving us a window into the nature of Jewish leadership. What is the message for us?
Reuven’s flaw was his lack of self control. He acted without proper forethought based on momentary whims and violated his father’s bed. He is therefore told “אל תותר”. He will not receive the positions of king and priest which had been his birthright. Shimon and Levi, by contrast, were careful planners. Their attack on Schechem demonstrates precise military strategy. Their mistake was improper motivation. Killing the inhabitants of Shechem was motivated by the Esav-like traits of anger and the willful need for revenge. Yaakov therefore decrees that these two tribes will be scattered among the others.
The positive qualities of Yehudah are also described in terms of battle, and they seem to contain a contradiction. On the one hand Yehudah is the fierce warrior whose “hand grasps the nape of his (fleeing) enemies”. On the other he is a lion who “restrained himself from ravaging” and in stead crouched majestically and securely. What is the greatness of Yehudah? Is it that he is an efficient fighter, or that he chooses not to fight? The answer is both and neither. Yehudah achieved a balance which protected him from the pitfalls of his elder brothers. The Netziv explains that like a lion Yehudah does not attack with every passing whim. He is thoughtful and restrained, attacking only when necessary.
When does Yehudah attack? The Meshech Chochmah suggests that the “fleeing enemies” are Amalek. When King Shaul and the rest of the Jews had mercy on the livestock of Amalek, the men of Yehudah did not. Yehudah’s motivations are pure and steadfast. He is not tempted by subjective whims, nor is he swayed by pressure from his brothers. Rather, he remains committed to Hashem’s instructions. The Netziv suggests that this commitment is almost instinctual. An inner call of the soul guides Yehudah away from bad decisions. Yehudah’s tenacity earns his brothers’ respect, and their loyalty.
A picture of Jewish leadership emerges for us. Our king does not hide from confrontation, nor does he seek battles to satisfy his whims or personal desires. Rather, he is called to action by the voice of G-d, both internal and external, to guide us faithfully, and with faith, through the challenges of history.