This week, we read from Parshat Vayiggash which begins with Yehudah’s plea to Yosef, in which Yehudah said, “For you are like Pharoah”. According to Midrash, this was the moment when QUOTE “the kings joined in battle.” Now, of course, we know that Joseph is like a king. Yehudah himself points that out. But how could Judah be considered a king? It’s true that later on, next week in Parshas Vayechi, Yaakov designates Yehudah as the tribe of kingship. And we know that he is famous for his incredible strength; he is Yehudah the lion. But, at this point in time, nothing has really transpired that would make Yehudah into any sort of king. So why would Midrash consider him such?
Perhaps the answer is that the king is ultimately the person who is responsible for the decisions and destiny of his nation. The bottom line is that responsibility resides with the leader of a nation. He must decide when to send the nation into war and when to sue for peace. Kingship equals responsibility. When Yehudah came forth and committed to his father Yaakov, “I will be responsible for Binyamin, from my hand you may seek him...”, he became the king. He put his life on the line, he personally guaranteed his brother’s safety, and he became a new man. He went from one of the brothers to the leader. To king.
If we understand this transformation, then we also understand another dramatic scene from earlier in the Torah. At the end of Parshas Miketz, when it was thought that Binyamin was ‘guilty’ of stealing the silver, Yehudah seems to act like a servant. He’s meek, and he prostrates himself in front of Yosef, confesses to the brother’s guilt, and offers himself and all his other brothers into slavery. And yet, later, two verses later, Yehudah is almost arrogant when he speaks to Yosef. What happened?
One rabbi, Rav Yosef Leb Bloch, explains that what happened is that Yehudah remembered his acceptance of responsibility. Once he remembered the commitment of “I will be his guarantor,” he underwent a metamorphosis. He could no longer play the role of the weak, gentle, and servile brother. “The buck stops here. It is my responsibility.” Yehudah experienced a personality change. He was now a different person. “I accepted responsibility and I must do what I must do to live up to that responsibility.”
I would add to Rav Bloch’s interpretation that this is what happens when a person does TESHUVAH. We know that the brothers, Yehudah in particular, have all sought repentance. The experience of teshuvah, of genuine repentance, involves an accepting of responsibility. It’s not an ignoring of the past, but it is a rewriting of the past. A rewriting that now includes responsibility for one’s actions. And accepting responsibility changes a person. In the words of Winston Churchill, “Some people are born great; some people achieve greatness; and some people have greatness thrust upon them.” I’m not sure if anyone is “born great,” but there is no question that Yehudah had greatness thrust upon him. And he rose to that challenge.
The message here is clear. If Yehudah, who was guilty of so much, in thought AND deed, can take responsibility and become a changed man, so can any of us.