The story is told that on April 12th, 1945, Harry Truman was summoned to the White House. Ushered into Eleanor Roosevelt's sitting room, the vice president was gently informed that President Roosevelt had died.
"Is there anything I can do for you?" Truman asked after a moment's reflection. "Is there anything we can do for you?" Eleanor replied. "You're the one in trouble now!"
Transformation of a Brother
Joseph could not contain his tears and nor can we, when we read each year the story of how after a feud and separation that endured for twenty-two years, the Prime Minister of Egypt, Joseph, reveals his true identity to his brothers(1).
No less moving is the speech – nay, ballad – presented by Judah, compelling Joseph to reveal himself to his brothers.
We are all quite familiar with the story: After having his silver goblet placed in his brother Benjamin’s saddlebag, Joseph accuses him of theft, and claims Benjamin the “thief” as his slave. Judah, approaches the viceroy of Egypt, unknowing that this was Joseph, and explains to him that there was no way he could return to his aging father Jacob without young Benjamin.
The Bible transcribes Judah’s exact presentation(2):
“And now if I come to your servant, my father, and the lad is not with us, and his soul is so bound up with his soul, when he will see that the lad is gone, he will die. And your servants will have brought down the hoariness of your servant our father in sorrow to the grave.
“Because your servant took responsibility for the lad from my father, saying, ‘If I do not bring him to you, then I will have sinned to my father, for all time.’
“Now, please let your servant remain in place of the lad as a servant to my lord, and let the lad go up with his brothers…”
Twenty-two years earlier, the same Judah said to his brothers(3), “What will we gain if we kill our brother and cover his blood? Let's sell him to the Arabs and not harm him with our own hands.” The brothers consented. Joseph was sold and brought to Egypt as a slave, where, years later, he rose to become the viceroy of the country. Now, when Joseph's younger brother Benjamin is about to be taken as a slave, Judah offers himself instead. A metamorphosis has occurred. The time is fertile for reconciliation and renewal. Joseph reunites with his family.
But there is more.
The Gift of Royalty
Tradition has it that royalty in the Jewish nation belongs primarily to the descendents of Judah(4). Of course, there were many monarchs who descended from other tribes, like King Saul from the tribe of Benjamin, or Yeravaam from the tribe of Joseph. The Hasmoneyan dynasty, responsible for the Hanukah festival, was from the Levite tribe. Yet the quality of royalty was imbued in the very psychological and spiritual chemistry of Judah’s descendants, producing over the generations numerous leaders and kings, from the monarchs of the Davidic dynasty to Moshiach (Messiah) who will also be a descendant of David, the great-great-grandchild of Judah(5).
Buy why? What did Judah do to deserve this? Was it because he was the one who ultimately saved Joseph from dying in a pit by selling him as a slave(3)? Was it because of his courage to confess publicly that he was the person who impregnated Tamar(6)?
Certainly, but there was something else, we may suggest. It was Judah’s declaration in this week’s portion, Vayigash, “Because your servant took responsibility for the lad,” that perhaps more than all demonstrated that the gift of leadership belonged to this man’s soul.
You see, notwithstanding his unwavering promise to his father to bring back Benjamin, Judah could have returned without the lad with a book filled with great excuses. “There was no way we could have fought the viceroy of Egypt, the superpower of the world;” “I know I promised to being him back, but our dear brother decided to steal the silver majestic goblet from the second to the most powerful person in the world… so what was I suppose to do?” Or, “G-d apparently wanted Benjamin to remain there, after all the viceroy’s goblet did ‘miraculously’ end up in Benjamin’s bag;” “being a slave by Egypt’s viceroy – our brother Shimon can report to us – is not that bad, he treats his workers with enormous dignity (7)." “Yes it’s terrible, but what should I have done? Self sacrifice can help you jump from the roof to the ground, not jump from the ground to the roof!”
These are part of the excuses Judah could have given, and he would have been (at least partially) correct. There is little one can do to battle reality.
But Judah was a leader. He had it in his bones to take absolute and total responsibility for a situation and never pass the buck to others, not even to perceived “reality.” As a genuine leader Judah stood up and proclaimed: “Because your servant took responsibility for the lad!” Yes, I can find many way how to vindicate myself, but the job will not get done. This is not about me—my innocence or guilt, my merit or fault. It is accomplishing the mission: Benjamin must return to his father.
Excuses vs. Action
We live in a generation when many good excuses have been given for our bleak demographics and for Jewish continuity becoming an endangered species. Many a sociologist has, over the course of the past half-century, explained some of the causes for mass assimilation, intermarriage, ignorance, sexual impropriety, apathy, and strife within the Jewish and general community. The Holocaust, secularism, modernity, failure of institutionalized religion, anti-Semitism, hypocrisy of religious leaders, monotony of ritual, and of course, the extraordinarily successful integration of Jews into the mainstream of American life. The walls of the ghetto, physical and conceptual, have at last crumbled.
As a frequent traveler to Jewish conventions and retreats around the globe, I am privy to hear lectures and workshops analyzing the unique challenges of our times and the various crises that threaten our future.
Yet I also had the privilege of seeing a “Judah,” who a number of years after the horrific and incomprehensible destruction of Auschwitz and Treblinka, rose and declared: “Your servant took responsibility for the lad.” I, your servant, have taken personal responsibility for the collective Jewish community and for every individual Jewish lad.
For the following four decades this man, a biological scion of Judah, would not sleep nor allow anyone else to sleep. Single handedly he empowered thousands upon thousands to stop passing the buck, or relieve their conscience by merely making a contribution to a noble cause. He inspired them to take personal responsibility for the welfare, continuity and eternity of the Jewish people. Do not allow “reality,” he always taught, to decide the future of the Jewish people. Take responsibility for the lad! Do not rest until every Jewish child the world over is given the opportunity to be liberated from spiritual slavery, from his subjugation to forces alien to his essence, and, just like Benjamin, to be able to return to his father in heaven.
Each year on this Sabbath when I hear the words “Your servant took responsibility for the lad” read aloud from the Torah scroll, my eyes swell up in tears. In my imagination I still see my Rebbe, his face aglow, teaching for hours, but always culminating with this resounding message:
“You and I must take responsibility for the lad!” Do not lament, kvetch, sigh and write a check. Instead, leave yourself and touch the heart of another person. Build communities, schools, synagogues and yeshivos. Give every Jewish child the gift of a Torah education. But most of all, care about the other as though he or she was your own brother.
“You may have good excuses for your inaction,” he would always say, and nobody will blame you.” But the bottom line is that after all of your rationalization, the child, Benjamin, will remain enslaved to Egypt and its culture.
In our times, often leaderless and aimless, we must make Judah’s call our own. “Your servant took responsibility for the lad.” So shall we.
1) Genesis 45:1. 2) Ibid. 44:18-34. 3) Ibid. 37:26. 4) See Rambam Laws of Kings 1:7-11. 5) See Rambam ibid. 11:4. 6) Genesis 38:26. 7) See Genesis 42:24.