Parshat Vayigash: Taking Responsibility – For Ourselves and For Others

Yehuda – Taking Responsibility

This week’s parsha opens with the dramatic confrontation between two brothers, Yosef and Yehuda.  The standoff between Yosef and his brothers has reached its climax.  Yosef has manipulated events so as to ensure that his brothers, who had sold him into slavery so many years before, find themselves once again confronted with the same situation. He has convinced them to bring his brother Binyamin down to Egypt, has accused Binyamin of theft, and now presents the brothers with the following choice – they can abandon this one brother (who as the only other son of their mother Rachel, stands in for Yosef) into slavery and ensure their own freedom, essentially perpetuating the behavior as in the past, or they can make a different choice this time, moving the family in a new direction.

It is Yehuda who takes up the gauntlet, and chooses to take responsibility for Binyamin, offering himself into slavery in Binyamin’s place.  This act of responsibility, in which Yehuda is willing not only to not “sell Binyamin down the river”, but to offer himself in his stead, demonstrates to Yosef that there has indeed been a dramatic transformation within the family, and that the time has come to reveal his identity and reunite them. Thus, Yehuda’s act of responsibility is the catalyst for reunification of the family of Yaakov.

Leadership is about taking responsibility

What impels Yehuda to take this action? While Yehuda may have been a natural leader, as demonstrated by the fact that the brothers acted on his suggestion to sell Yosef, we see by his willingness to sell his brother into slavery that his understanding of taking responsibility for another was undeveloped at that point. Following the traumatic event of the selling of Yosef, we see that Yehuda abandoned his role as leader, and with this came a complete abandonment of familial responsibility.

The pasuk there tells us that “Yehuda went down from among his brothers” (Bereshit 38:1). As opposed to the oft quoted opinion of Rashi on the pasuk, that Yehuda’s going down refers to  his  demotion from his position of leadership by the brothers, Chizkuni argues that Yehuda actually demoted himself from his position as leader, wanting no part in the family or the responsibility that went with it.  He then marries a Canaanite woman, which is an act that flies in the face of the tradition of the family of Avraham, thereby symbolically renouncing all responsibility for his family.

What is Responsibility? Responsibility vs. Reactivity

Let us take a closer look at the nature of responsibility.  What is responsibility? Simply put, responsibility is literally “response ability” – the ability to choose to respond to an event rather than to react instinctively or precipitously. A reaction is an instantaneous act designed to afford us immediate relief from discomfort, or immediate gratification or pleasure. A response occurs when one is able to take a pause, defer the instantaneous urge, and make a conscious choice about the most appropriate course of action.

The pasuk says that Yehuda was in a place called “Kziv” during this time. The name of the place may be connected to the word “kazav”, which means deceit, and is related to the word for disappointment and frustration.  Yehuda was indeed in a place of reactivity. He acts out of fear, refusing to endanger his youngest son’s life, despite the fact that it would ensure the perpetuation of the memory of his two other sons. He visits a prostitute, and when that prostitute demands payment he willingly and immediately hands over his most precious positions, those that identify his identity and also his role as leader – his seal, his cloak, and his staff, and when the prostitute disappears, he is willing to give up those items in order to save himself the discomfort of embarrassment. All these behaviors demonstrate reflexive reactions to the immediate urge to pursue pleasure or to avoid distress.

It is only when Yehuda is put in a position where is forced to pause and make a choice, that he comes face to face with himself. He is challenged by Tamar to take responsibility for his actions and admit that he has fathered her child. This is Yehuda’s moment to stop and choose. Will he respond by making the choice that is more difficult, and which demands that he face public embarrassment and private stock-taking of his own behavior, or will he react by taking the easier path, but one that will deny him forever the return of his leadership and indeed his true identity?

Rights, Responsibility,  and Accountability for the Other

Yehuda chooses responsibility, and from this moment forward, he acts responsibly. So far, we have defined responsibility as the ability to take control of one’s own internal life. There a second significant component to responsibility. As a society, and as individuals, we are aware of principles of human rights, and we advocate for their implementation. Interestingly, while the Torah calls for justice and ethical behavior, championing the cause of the oppressed, it does not do so in the language of rights. Instead, it does so in the language of responsibility. The Torah enjoins the individual to be responsible to care for and ensure the rights of our fellow human being. The responsibility devolves upon each of us to care for the poor, the orphan, the widow, the other.

It is this perspective that Yehuda now adopts. He confesses in order to protect Tamar from an unjust fate.  He convinces his father to send Binyamin down to Egypt by promising to ensure that no harm will befall him. And when that responsibility is put to the test, he is willing to sacrifice himself in order to guarantee the safety of his brother, ultimately reuniting the family and proving himself to be a true leader.

May we all strive to incorporate responsibility into our lives.  May we learn how to make good choices for ourselves instead of reacting to a need for immediate gratification.  And may we then be able to make choices propelled by a desire to care for the well-being of those around us.

Rabbanit Mali Brofsky​Rabbanit Mali Brofsky, a member of Beit Hillel, is a senior faculty member and director of the Shana Bet program at Michlelet Mevaseret Yerushalayim. She has over twenty years of experience at post high school seminaries, and has published and lectured extensively on Jewish thought and education. She holds a Masters in Jewish Philosophy from Bernard Revel Graduate School and an MSW from Wurzweiler School of Social Work, and runs a clinical practice in Jerusalem and Gush Etzion.

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