> Weekly Torah Portion > Intermediate > The Guiding Light

Judah – Taking Responsibility

Vayigash (Genesis 44:18-47:27 )

by Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen

Greatness comes to those who embrace responsibility.

The Torah Portion begins with the momentous confrontation between Judah and Joseph. Judah demonstrates his greatness by taking total responsibility for Benjamin to the extent that he offers to be Joseph’s slave. The Sages tell us that Judah and his descendants performed a number of actions that demonstrated his remarkable propensity to take responsibility and how because of this, his family merited the crown of Kingship. The Tosefta cites a number of these actions:1

“Because of what [action] did Judah merit Kingship; because he saved his brother from death, as it says, “And Judah said to his brothers what profit will we have if we kill our brother and cover his blood…” The first reason the Tosefta gives is that he was the brother who prevented Joseph from being killed.2 The Tosefta continues: “Because of what [action] did Judah merit Kingship; because he admitted [his responsibility in the incident with Tamar.” When Tamar was about to be burnt for seemingly transgressing the laws of immorality, Judah realized that he was the father of the twins she was bearing. He could have remained silent and saved himself from embarrassment, but he publicly admitted his role, thereby saving the lives of Tamar and the babies. The Tosefta offers another reason, this time focusing on an action taken by one of Judah’s descendants: “Because of what [action] did Judah merit Kinship; because he sanctified God’s name, that when the Tribes stood at the sea, each one said ‘I am not going in[first], but the tribe of Judah jumped in and went in first, thereby sanctifying God’s name.” On this occasion, Nachshon ben Aminadav, of Judah, took the first bold steps into the Sea of Reeds even though he had no inkling of what would happen. Indeed the water was up to his nose when the Sea finally split.

What is the common denominator of the reasons given by the Tosefta? They all show Judah’s greatness in the area of taking responsibility.3 It seems that there are two main aspects of responsibility; taking responsibility for one’s own actions, and mistakes in particular; and taking responsibility to do what is necessary even when others do not. The Tosefta is teaching us that Judah epitomized both of these aspects.

When Judah admitted his role in the incident with Tamar he passed a test that many great people before him failed to pass. Indeed none other than the first man, Adam is an example of this phenomenon. We traditionally attribute Adam’s sin to his disobeying God’s instructions not to eat from the fruit, and it was this that caused Adam and Eve to be expelled from Gan Eden with all the accompanying negative consequences. On closer analysis it is clear that they were not punished immediately after the sin. Rather, God engaged Adam in conversation, giving him the opportunity to admit his mistake. However, Adam did not accept this reprieve, instead he said, “the woman whom You gave to be with me - she gave me of the tree and I ate.”4 Adam avoided responsibility for his sin, shifting it onto Eve and even God himself for giving her to him initially. Then God turned to Eve, also giving her a chance to repent - she too, declined the offer, saying, “the serpent deceived me and I ate.”5 . Only then did God punish them for the sin - it is clear that had they taken responsibility for their actions when God confronted them, then surely the punishment would have been far lighter - who knows how different the course of history could have been!

The descendants of Adam and Eve continued in the same vein. We see this in the story of Kain and Abel. After Kain killed Abel, God did not punish him instantly rather He said “where is Abel your brother?” Kain famously answered; “am I my brother’s keeper?”6 The Midrash gives more details of Kain‘s reply: “You are the protector of all life, and You are asking me?!.. I killed him but You gave me the evil inclination, You are supposed to protect everyone and You let me kill him, You are the one that killed him… had You accepted my offering like his, I would not have been jealous of him.”7 In a remarkable display of blame-shifting, Kain attributed all the culpability to God - how could he convince himself of his innocence in his heinous act? Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz explains that all his excuses stem from one factor, “that responsibility for the action was not incumbent upon him”.8 He was unwilling to admit to the reality and accept the truth - that only he alone was culpable. Consequently he had no difficulty in cleansing himself of any guilt in the murder.

From these stories, it seems that the test of mankind was not simply to avoid mistakes, rather to accept accountability for those mistakes. Indeed we all err at some point, it is whether we can stand up and admit the truth for our actions that is the true judge of our spiritual level. It was only several hundred years that Judah shouldered the responsibility for his actions. This was so significant that it earned him the role of having the Kingship and the accompanying idea that Mashiach would descend from him. We know that the Messiah will rectify the damage done by Adam’s sin, therefore it is no coincidence that Judah earns this merit, since he was the first person to rectify Adam’s failure to admit his mistake.

The other reasons mentioned in the Tosefta focuses on the second aspect of responsibility – being the person to stand up and do what was necessary. Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz writes, “at that time the tribe of Judah felt personally responsible for all of Israel and that he [Judah] should do what was incumbent upon him - because of this feeling, he became greater than all of Israel, and was filled with a strength and power to cross the sea as if it was completely dry, it was through this that Judah merited to be King.”9 By taking responsibility and stepping into the Sea, Judah inherited the most important role among the Jewish people.

Similarly, when he was standing over Joseph in the pit, he could easily have kept quiet and left Joseph to suffer his fate. The brothers all believed that Joseph had sinned greatly and deserved a sever punishment. However, Judah recognized that to kill him or leave him to die would be an unfair course of action. Therefore, he took responsibility and saved his brother.

We see from here a crucial idea: Responsibility can often be seen as a burden, something which restricts us and forces us to do things that we do not want to do. The actions of Judah show us exactly the opposite. It was his trait of taking responsibility, for himself, his family and his nation, that enabled him to reach such exalted heights. As Rav Shmuelevitz says, at the very moment that he accepted “what was incumbent upon him”, it was then that he rose to a whole new level.

We have seen how Judah’s great merit in becoming the scion of the family of Kingship and ancestor of Messiah, came as a result of his outstanding trait of taking responsibility. This is a key lesson to all of us in our lives; in order to achieve true greatness one must be willing to take responsibility for his mistakes, and take responsibility to take action when no one else is willing to do so. And if a person makes that difficult step, then he can be assured of the results that Rav Shmuelevitz described with regard to Yehuda.


1. Tosefta, Berachos. 4:16. Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz discusses this Tosefta at length in Sichot Mussar, Maamer 20, pp.83-84. It is true that he was punished for not following through with his initial suggestion not to kill Joseph, by saving him completely instead of selling him as a slave. Nevertheless, this does not take away from the initial positive action of saving Joseph from certain death.

1. See Rav Sichot Mussar, Maamer 19 for more on this.

2. Bereishit, 3:12.

3. ibid. 3:13.

4. Ibid. 4:9.

5. Medrash Tanchuma, Bereishis, point 9.

6. Sichos Mussar, Maamer 20, p.85.

7. Sichos Mussar, Maamer 20, pp.83-84.

1 2 3 2,900

🤯 ⇐ That's you after reading our weekly email.

Our weekly email is chock full of interesting and relevant insights into Jewish history, food, philosophy, current events, holidays and more.
Sign up now. Impress your friends with how much you know.
We will never share your email address and you can unsubscribe in a single click.
linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram