The tragedy of lacking prophetic leadership

The story of Yosef represents a break from the earlier parts of Bereshit. In the stories of Avraham Yitzchak and Yaakov there is the constant guidance of Nevuah. Suddenly in the Yosef story this stops. God is involved but the participants don’t know in what way. Only in hindsight can Yosef explain it as a method of saving Yaakov’s family from the famine. As readers we are explicitly informed of divine involvement, but in a form limited to punishing the wicked, such as Er and Onan, or helping Yosef find success in all of his pursuits – but, critically, without explicit communication of its meaning.

What happened? It seems that Yaakov no longer served as a prophetic leader of his family.

Chazal mention that Ruach hakodesh left Yaakov during the 22 years that he mourned for Yosef. When a person is overcome by grief they are unable to find the peace of mind needed to have prophecy.

However, perhaps this problem started even earlier. Chazal criticize Yaakov for seeking to live in peace. They view the story of Yosef as a way of shaking him out of complacency. Yaakov decided to step out of his leadership role and hand it over to Yosef. But unlike Yaakov, Yosef was not a Navi. (Perhaps if he had the opportunity to train with Yaakov for longer he would have become a Navi, but unfortunately we will never know how the story would have gone if Yosef had become a prophet instead of merely a righteous dreamer). The problem was not only that Yaakov lost prophecy, but that even earlier he abdicated his leadership position.

In a sense the brothers themselves rejected prophetic guidance, Chazal mention that even God was included in their oath to not inform Yaakov of what had happened, and God respected that oath. God allows a person to follow the path of their choosing, and in this case they were certain in their judgment of Yosef and rejected divine involvement and instead chose to blind Yaakov to the truth.

In the absence of prophetic leadership – governing the people in the way of Hashem to do rightness and justice (as taught by Avraham) – all that was left was the applying personal wisdom to the degree possible and interpreting dreams. While better then foolishness, such a method is subject to grave error and missteps. Unlike the brothers, who were influenced by jealousy, and Yosef who was influenced by immature arrogance, a prophet is not guided by their emotions and can respond accurately to a situation without blindness.

While the lack of prophecy was a grave problem for them and led to the tragedy of the story, it has a benefit for us. It is hard to apply the lessons from the lives of the Avot to our lives since we lack prophecy and manifest divine providence. But since the story of Yosef lacks these things it can serve as a paradigm for us of how to live in a world where God’s plan is hidden. A world where we must apply our wisdom grounded in Yirat Hashem, and only sometimes gain a glimpse of God’s plan in hindsight. It serves as an exemplar that God’s ways are completely unlike ours, and that they follow a complex and, sometimes, a seemingly backwards method.


  1. Why do you need “prophetic leadership to govern people in the way of Hashem to do rightness and justice (as taught by Avraham)”? Isn’t this the method Avraham taught his entire household, even though they weren’t prophets?

    As a corollary: I can understand why it would help to have prophecy itself, but is it really true that only a prophet can be objective and unemotional?

    1. I don’t know. But some things which might be part of an answer (some mentioned in a variety of sources).
      1. It might be tied to the Rambam in book 2 about different types of leadership. We are not talking about a person being objective but rather a leadership based on objective implementation of midot hashem. Perhaps this points to the Rambam claim (which needs to be explored) that a developed imaginative faculty is needed for leadership and that a person with only chachma will not be an effective leader. This would assume that prophecy in our context includes the 2 levels of ruach hakodesh, and not only prophecy most properly speaking.
      2. In general the method for objectivity guiding action is through the mitzvot. According to the Rambam the mitzvot are the path which follow the middle path (Kedoshim tiyhu, zeh kedushat mitzvot) . For a non-prophetic leader they are limited to the cases of the mitzvot, but a navi has access to horaat shaah. For example, poked avon avot al banim is expressed in war with avodah zarah such as 7 nations and ir nidachat. But what about a case of a city which is like sedom in injustice and arayos but not doing avodah zarah (like the story of pilegesh bigivah). Without horaat shaah of a navi how is that case governed? A navi has access to horaat shaah that others don’t (and that is a key part of the navi’s job). (But this leaves the question of how horaat shaah relates to acting dispassionately).

      In the case of Avraham would they be able to follow this path based on their own research, or did they need to follow his guidance, i.e. of a navi, who was involved in ongoing prophetic insight about these issues as seen in the tefila about sedom?

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