The Sage is Preferable to the Prophet

This week's Dvar Torah is by Rabbi David Debow – Former Rosh Kollel - Cleveland, currently Director, Midreshet Emunah v'Omanut - Jerusalem.

Contact Editor
Torah Mitzion Torani Tzioni Movement,

Torah Mitzion
Torah Mitzion

Last week's cliff hanger ends with the dramatic dialogue between Yosef (Joseph) and Yehuda (Judah) in this week's Torah reading, Parshat Vayigash.  It is the longest oration recorded in Genesis, Sefer Breishit. This skillful oration can be read on many levels. I would like to bypass the Pshat orientated narrow focus of how Yehuda succeeds in moving Yosef to finally reveal himself and instead read this interaction as a larger question of two approaches to Jewish leadership that has relevance today, especially as we usher out the Holiday of Hanukkah.

Yehuda and Yosef are in tension because they represent two models of Jewish leadership that are vying for prominence. We know that Yehuda succeeds in gaining the leadership as the Line of David will eventually stem from Yehuda. Yaakov's final blessing establishes Yehuda's leadership as primary:

לא יסור שבט מיהודה מחוקק מבין רגליו . . .

The scepter will not depart from Yehuda nor the ruler's staff from between his feet;

(Bereshit 49:10)

But Yosef will also play a leadership role, although subordinate to Yehuda. Our first king, Saul, descends from Binyamin (Benjamin) and Yosef. This is clearly a large story with many ramifications.

The force of Yehuda's appeal lies in the human story of the pain and possible death of Yehuda's elderly father if Yehuda does not succeed in returning Binyamin safely home. Yehuda does not explicitly invoke moral arguments as to the injustice he has been dealt. Although the Midrash followed by Rashi, reads between the lines a certain moral outrage conveyed by Yehuda to this supposed cruel Egyptian Vice-Regent. The outward tone of Yehuda appeals to the human suffering of an elderly father who has been bereft of the son of a singular wife and now faces the loss of the second son of that special wife.

Yehuda does not invoke G-d or other higher ideals. Instead, he tells a tragic tale with few embellishments of what his father has suffered and will likely suffer upon the loss of Binyamin.

By contrast, Yosef invokes very different language when revealing himself to his brothers. He explains his forgiveness and reasons the brothers should not be pained because G-d has somehow orchestrated events. Yosef's original claim of leadership – the one that aroused so much tension between the brothers – was shared by way of a dream. Yosef's rise to power also lay in his claim to heavenly knowledge by way of dreams. Yosef is a Tzaddik. Although he struggled with sexual temptation from the wife of Potiphar - he did not succumb.

Yehuda is a man of action. He did do wrong with Tamar but also demonstrated a heroic example of repentance when confronted with his wrong-doing. That same acceptance of responsibility and learning from past mistakes is clearly evident in his standing up for Binyamin even at the cost of his own servitude.

I would like to associate these two contrasting approaches of Yehuda and Yosef to different leadership models for the Jewish People.  Yosef's  leadership authority descends from Heaven. He appeals to God's plans, his invocation of dreams and his innocence all suggest to me the leadership of a Navi – a prophet.  Yehuda's down to earth approach, his concern with human feelings and human sensitivities all suggest the leadership of the Chachamim or the Sages.

The Navi takes a heavenly perspective and tries to coax the people to live up to that ideal. The Sage looks at society from a human eye-level and concerns himself with the intricacies of Halakha and making human conduct as fair and ideal as possible. He starts with the human condition and tries to raise it heavenward towards a more perfected society. Both the Navi and the Sage have important and complimentary contributions to make to the Jewish people. However the Gemara takes a clear stand when it says:

  חכם עדיף מנביאThe Sage is preferable to the Prophet. (Bava Batra 12a)

Rav Kook wrote a fascinating essay elaborating this point and also described an eventual synthesis between the two approaches. By associating the leadership styles of Yehuda with the Sage and that of Yosef with the Prophet, we can invoke this pronouncement of the Talmud Tractate Bava Batra as another way of understanding the primacy of Yehuda's leadership over Yosef.

All this leads us to the story of Hanukkah.  Rav Hutner explains at length how Hanukkah marks the historic turning point between the leadership of the Navi passing over to the leadership of the Chacham. Prophecy is also tied to revealed miracles. Both are communications from, and interventions by G-d that suspend the natural order. 

However, the miracle of the single flask of oil that lasted for eight days seems to pale in scale when compared to earlier miracles like the parting of the Red Sea or the falling walls of Jericho or Eliyahu bringing down fire from heaven.

 However, when we see it as a final flicker, the last open miracle that institutes the final holiday of classical Jewish History, we understand its great significance. We also understand that the significance of the Sages grew exponentially from Hanukkah onward. It is during this period that we meet the first identified pairs of Sages involved in the perpetuation of the Oral tradition.  While we understand the sages as preserving a tradition going back to Moshe Rabbeinu, it is only during this period that we begin to learn the names of the Sages - Yossi ben Yoezer and Yossi Ish Seraida being the first of the Zuggot (pairs) who initiate the Tannaim of the Mishna.

Thus with the example of Yehuda and Hanukkahh, I give us all a blessing. We live in a world without prophecy and open miracles. G-d has given us a great opportunity to actualize our participation in Jewish history by participating in the great enterprise of the Oral Torah. That we should use this G-d granted independence to perfect our society in a way that reveals the Divine ideals expressed in the Torah. We should operate with faith and fortitude in this darkened world without G-d's direct involvement and learn to light candles that spread G-d's enlightenment from our human perspective heavenward.

The Torah MiTzion movement strives to inter-connect and inspire world Jewry through Torah-centered Religious-Zionism by offering various models designed to reach and impact the Jewish people at both the communal and personal levels, including the setting up of Zionist Kollels in many communities abroad. There are groups in Sydney, Melbourne, St. Louis, Memphis, Moscow, Montreal, Munich, Capetown, Montivideo, Lima and more.