Dedicated to the memory of Robert Chai ben Myriam
As the story of Yosef and his brothers reaches its climax in this week’s parsha it appears that the common thread throughout the incident is the question of accepting responsibility. Heaven demands responsibility from human beings. Irresponsible behavior is seen as sinful in Jewish life and values. Yosef’s irresponsible behavior in his dealings with his brothers when he was yet young nevertheless returns to dominate his life all of his years. Even after the reconciliation and forgiveness between the brothers and Yosef the brothers still are wary of him as Rashi points out in next week’s parsha of Vayechi. The results of irresponsible behavior and speech always haunt us to the end. The brothers’ irresponsible behavior in selling Yosef into slavery remains an issue not only for them but for all of Israel even millennia later. The paytan of the liturgy of the ten martyrs of Israel in Roman times recited on Yom Kippur in the Ashkenazic rite cites the sale of Yosef by his brothers as justification for their executions. As far fetched as that reasoning may sound it strikes a chord in Jewish memory and Torah values. The rule in Halacha regarding all matters of torts and damages is that a person is always and permanently responsible for the results of one’s actions, behavior and negligence. There is never any legal or moral way to escape responsibility. The definition in Judaism of being a mature and good person is that one is a responsible person. Responsibility entails commitment, loyalty, sensitivity and deep understanding of surrounding circumstances and challenges. It is therefore a virtue not easily attained and requires constant attention.
The hero who emerges from the narrative in the parsha is Yehuda. He now takes responsibility for not only Binyamin and his return to his father but indirectly for the selling of Yosef into slavery as well. "I am the guarantor of Binyamin’s safety," he told his father and now that the moment of crisis and payment has arrived he lives up to his responsibility. It is this sense of responsibility that is recognized by Yaakov when he entrusts the monarchy and leadership of the Jewish people into the hands of Yehuda and his tribe and descendants. The first requirement of leadership is accepting responsibility for one’s actions, policies and words. Wisdom, tact, political skills are all necessary ingredients for successful leadership. Nevertheless, without the overriding characteristic of personal responsibility being present, all of the above ingredients will not suffice to create positive leadership. Yehuda explains to Yosef why he, out of all of the brothers, is stepping forth on behalf of the defense of Binyamin. "I am his guarantor," he tells Yosef. "I pledged myself to safeguard his welfare and return him to his father. I am the responsible party." Only when one develops such a sense of responsibility is one entitled to aspire to roles of command and leadership. In truth, we all occupy such roles in our families, communities, institutions and societies. We cannot avoid the challenge of always being responsible people, answerable to others and to our Creator. That is the essence of one of the great values of Judaism and Jewish life.