We encounter, in this week’s Parasha, one of the remarkable acts of self-sacrifice and in the process the formation of a great leadership quality – the seal of the House of Judah. The tribe of Judah, as a result, would become the tribe where the leading kings of Israel would emanate from, King David, his descendants, culminating in the ultimate leader – the Mashiach himself.
Judah’s defining quality was a deep sense of personal responsibility for his brother. Joseph is yet to reveal himself to his brothers and has threatened to imprison Benjamin for life while allowing the other brothers to return home. Judah springs into action with remarkable self-sacrifice offering himself in place of Benjamin and prepared to suffer life imprisonment and rot in an Egyptian dungeon in order to free his brother.
“For your servant assumed responsibility for the boy from my father…. So now, please let your servant stay instead of the boy” (Bereishit 44:32-33).
The reason Judah is prepared to do this is in order to fulfill a promise made to his father. He promised Jacob that if he releases Benjamin to go down to Egypt with them – as was the request of Joseph – he will take full responsibility for him and personally guarantee his return.
“I will be a personal guarantee for him… if I don’t bring him back… I will have sinned before you forever” (Bereishit 43:9).
This remarkable trait of taking full and personal responsibility for Benjamin is a great rectification of Judah’s original role in the sale of Joseph. It was Judah himself who led the brothers to sell Joseph into slavery and in the process relinquished all responsibility for him. Here, Judah comes full circle, rectifying his sin as a complete Ba’al Teshuva, faced with a similar situation with Benjamin. Here he does exactly the opposite and takes full personal responsibility for him to the extent of being prepared to sit in his place in prison until the end of days.
Rav Huna learns from this a specific type of responsibility knows as ערבות קבלן – unlimited guaranteeship – where a person acts as a personal guarantor (Tractate Baba Batra 173). The Gemara continues that this is deeper than regular guaranteeship – known as ערבות סתם. Here, the guarantor is not considered third party in a borrower-lender agreement, but rather acquires the same status as the borrower himself, and the lender may claim from them both equally. In short – full personal responsibility.
Furthermore, this case regarding Judah is the first time that the concept of mutual responsibility appears in the Torah. In time, it will become one of the most fundamental halachic and moral principles in Jewish life – “All of Israel are responsible for each other” (Tractate Shevuot 39). This important principle has far-reaching halachic ramifications. We’ll bring one example – a Jew who has already made Kiddush may make the same blessing again for someone else even though he has already previously fulfilled the mitzvah. This halacha seems illogical. How can someone who has already performed a mitzvah and thus fulfilled their obligation, then make Kiddush for someone else who has not yet fulfilled the mitzvah? The Shulchan Aruch Harav explains (Orach Chaim 8:11 and 167:23) that this halacha is derived from the principle of mutual responsibility. If another Jew hasn’t fulfilled their obligation, then on some level neither have I. Our destinies are intertwined as we are mutually responsible one for the other.
In facing the challenges ahead, every Jewish leader ought to learn this fundamental quality from Judah. The ability to feel full and personal responsibility for the destiny of all of those we have the privilege to lead.