May 29, 2024
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Obligation and Responsibility

In one of the most moving monologues in the Bible, Yehuda stands before Yosef and takes complete responsibility for his brother Binyamin; he spares no effort to free him from prison, even risking his own life on behalf of his brother. His impassioned plea to Tzaphnat Paneiach–Yosef–demonstrates his complete devotion to his family and his father. Yet, the first time we are introduced to Yehuda in parshat Vayeishev, he is presented in a completely different light. It is Yehuda who reduces Yosef’s value to what can be gained from his sale. His attitude towards Yosef is glib and flip.

Studying Yehuda’s transformation is critical to the understanding of leadership. Leadership doesn’t begin with assuming responsibility for others; leadership begins by taking responsibility for oneself. Yehuda’s maturation into a great leader began when he recognized that Tamar was righteous. His public admission of guilt and acknowledgment of his responsibility to her, even at the cost of his own reputation, set in motion his evolving leadership role in the family.

Our next encounter with Yehuda is when Yaakov refuses to dispatch his children to purchase food in Egypt to free Shimon from prison. At first, Reuven attempts to persuade Yaakov to trust him with the safety of his family by offering to sacrifice his two sons if his mission fails. However, Yaakov, wise and hesitant, understands that Reuven is not taking responsibility for his brothers. His guarantee is at best a deflection and very possibly insincere.

However, when Yehuda declares that he will personally guarantee the safe return of his family, Yaakov acquiesces. For the first time, Yaakov has heard a leading brother taking full, personal responsibility for others. After years of mourning the disappearance and possible death of Yosef, it became evident that one brother emerged accepting responsibility for the needs of others. Centuries later, a different Yehuda demonstrated the importance of obligation and responsibility to others.

Rabbi Israel Meir Lau explains that there is an intrinsic link between Yehuda’s narrative and the story of Chanukah. The story of the brothers descending to Egypt to purchase food always overlaps with Chanukah to demonstrate the importance of assuming responsibility for others. His namesake, Yehuda Ha Maccabee, began the battles with their enemy with only 3,000 combat soldiers. Completely overwhelmed by the 20,000 enemy soldiers and 2,000 chariots, many of Yehuda’s soldiers fled, leaving him with only 800 combat soldiers. He was not deterred, nor did he retreat. He understood his obligation to fight for the future of the Jewish people, despite the risk to his own personal wellbeing.

Similarly, after the Six-Day War, Yitzchak Rabin, at the time the Chief of Staff of the Israeli Defense forces, received an honorary doctorate from the Hebrew University for his actions leading Israel to victory. In response to the honor, Lieutenant General Rabin explained that Israel’s astonishing victory wasn’t due to her great armor, sophisticated weaponry or powerful Air Force. The underlying reason why the IDF had vanquished the attacking armies from the north, south and east was a result of each soldier’s love for his homeland and sense of obligation to guarantee the future of the State of Israel and safety of her citizens. Even at the cost of their own lives, their obligation to their people transcended their concern for their own safety. Those famous words–I take responsibility–uttered by Yehuda before descending to Egypt resonated with each soldier.

Yehuda’s obligation to Binyamin, Shimon and his father set the standard for every one of his descendants to assume responsibility for others and embrace this responsibility with passion and commitment. Our generation is blessed with Jews from every community who recognize their obligation to guarantee our future and who take responsibility for the Jewish people, at any cost.

By Rabbi Eliezer Rubin

Head of School, JKHA/RKYHS

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