In last week’s parshah, we learn about two sons of Jacob who rose to leadership, Judah and Joseph. The common thread through both stories is the transformation of character that made them fit to lead.

At the beginning of the parshah, Joseph comes across as a spoiled, arrogant, and self-centered young man. He is his father’s undisguised favorite. His dreams of the sheaves of his brothers bowing to him, and of the sun, the moon, and eleven stars bowing to him, are a vision of self-aggrandizement. His brothers were so repelled by his arrogance that they considered killing him and wound up selling him.

Joseph became a slave in Egypt and was eventually placed in charge of the household of his master, Potifar. Mrs. Potifar sought to seduce Joseph. He could have responded to her entreaties by simply saying that doing so would betray his master’s trust in both. That might well have put an end to the incident. But Joseph answered by saying what an important man he was and how the entire household was under his control. One can easily imagine him saying, “Far be it for a man of my stature to be with an [improper woman] like you.” Joseph deserves credit for resisting temptation and sin, but the experience of being sold and enslaved did little to curb his arrogance. Potifar’s wife, seething with revenge, tells her husband that Joseph attempted to seduce or rape her. Joseph was tossed into prison.

It was the dreams of the two servants of Pharaoh who were with him in prison that taught Joseph the lesson that would transform his life and history. In ancient monarchies, people who held titles like chief wine steward or chief baker were important officials, equivalent to cabinet ministers of today. How did Joseph know how to interpret the dream and predict the future? The chief wine steward dreamed that he squeezed grapes into Pharaoh’s cup and placed the cup in Pharaoh’s hand. The wine steward dreamed of being of service to Pharaoh. Such loyalty would be rewarded. The chief baker dreamed that he placed a basket of baked goods on his head and that birds ate them. He dreamed of using the baked goods prepared for Pharaoh to crown himself. That was a sign that he was disloyal to Pharaoh and would pay the price. The combined meaning of the two dreams was clear. The path to greatness is to be of service, to help others to achieve their dreams – to put the interest of the public before one’s own.

The Joseph who explained Pharaoh’s dream two years later was a changed man. He is humble when he says “G-d will see to Pharaoh’s welfare.” He displays wisdom and foresight in explaining the dream and outlining a plan to rescue Egypt. Joseph, transformed from a man who dreamed of aggrandizing himself to a man who sought to help others achieve their dreams, rose to greatness as he rescued his adopted country and eventually his family from starvation.

When the brothers sought to kill Joseph, Judah convinces them otherwise, saying, “What profit is there for us in killing our brother and covering his blood?” Judah essentially is saying, “As long as we are getting rid of the brat, we might as well make some money on the deal,” hardly qualifies him as a great humanitarian.

Judah went into business with a Canaanite named Chirah and married the daughter of a Canaanite man named Shua. When his wife gave birth to their third son, Sheilah, Judah was out of town. Seemingly, Judah considered whatever he was doing in K’ziv to be more important than being with his wife as she gave birth.

Judah marries off his oldest son, Er, to a woman named Tamar. When Er was struck down by G-d, Judah instructs his next son, Onan, to marry his brother’s widow to carry on the name. When Onan, too, is struck down, Judah tells Tamar to live as a widow in her father’s house until Sheilah comes of age. Judah had no intention of ever allowing Sheilah to marry Tamar. He condemned his daughter-in-law to perpetual widowhood while taking no responsibility to support her.

Years later, Tamar saw Judah arrive in town with a mature Sheilah. Realizing that Judah had misled her from the beginning, she disguised herself as a harlot. Judah, apparently with no moral pangs of engaging with such a person, propositioned her crassly and agreed to leave his cloak, staff, and signet ring with her as collateral until he sent a kid as payment. The items left behind could easily be identified with Judah.

When Tamar became pregnant, Judah ordered that she be executed by burning for adultery. Tamar did not defend herself by accusing Judah. Instead, she presented the cloak, staff, and signet ring, saying they belonged to the man who impregnated her. This was the moment of Judah’s transformation. Judah realized that his behavior came close to allowing an innocent woman to be executed. He takes responsibility for his actions.

This Judah is a man transformed. He will take responsibility and hold himself accountable. This is the man who can be trusted with the care of Benjamin, who will offer to become a slave in Benjamin’s stead. When Jacob blesses his sons, he appoints Judah as the leader his brothers will look up to. Twins were born from the union of Judah and Tamar. One of them, Peretz, would become the ancestor of King David and of the future Messiah.

The traits of Joseph and Judah can be found in their descendants who became great leaders.

Joshua, a descendant of Joseph, devoted most of his life to helping Moshe conduct his Divinely ordained mission. According to the midrash, Joshua did not find it beneath his dignity to set up the benches in the beis midrash. His devoted and faithful service to Moshe qualified him to be Moshe’s successor.

King David was a descendant of Judah. When Nathan the Prophet confronted David after the incident with Bas Sheva, David confessed and took responsibility. When G-d decreed that all of Israel should suffer, David said that he was responsible, and that punishment should only be inflicted on him.

From Joseph we can learn that leadership is not about self-aggrandizement and pursuing one’s own dreams. It is about putting the public first and helping others to achieve their dreams. From Judah we learn that leadership is about taking responsibility and accepting accountability.

There are questions we need to ask about our leaders of today and those who seek to be the leaders of tomorrow in Israel and in the United States. Do they seek leadership to serve the public or to aggrandize themselves? Do they put the public interest ahead of their personal interest? Do they take responsibility for their actions? Do they hold themselves accountable for their failures of judgment and character?

 By Manny Behar