Chazal tell us that Yaakov Avinu’s firstborn, Reuven, should have received the kingship, but he lost it as a punishment for his sin of moving his father’s bed. Instead, Yaakov’s fourth son, Yehudah, became the Jewish people’s first king and the ancestor of all Jewish kings. Why Yehudah? The Tosefta cites several reasons:
Why did Yehudah merit kingship?
Because he saved his brother from death. As it says, “And Yehudah said to his brothers, ‘What profit will we have if we kill our brother and cover his blood…?'”
Because he admitted [responsibility] in the incident with Tamar. [When Tamar was about to be burnt for apparent immorality, Yehuda realized that he was the father of her unborn child(ren). He could have remained silent and spared himself embarrassment, but he publicly admitted his role, thereby saving Tamar and her twins.]
Because he sanctified HaShem’s Name: When the tribes stood at the [Reed] Sea, each one said, “I am not going in [first],” but the tribe of Yehudah jumped in first…”
In all these incidents, Yehudah took responsibility, whether for his own actions, or for others’ inaction.
By admitting his involvement with Tamar, Yehudah passed a test that many great people before him had failed, including none other than Adam and Chavah. We traditionally define their eating the forbidden fruit as the sin that caused them to be expelled from Gan Eden. However, they were not punished immediately. Rather, HaShem engaged Adam in conversation, giving him the opportunity to admit his mistake. Instead he said, “the woman whom You gave to be with me – she gave me of the tree, and I ate.” Adam avoided responsibility for his sin, shifting it onto Chavah and even HaShem Himself for giving her to him. Then HaShem turned to Chavah, also giving her a chance to repent. She too declined the offer, saying, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.” Only then did HaShem punish them. Had they taken responsibility for their actions when HaShem confronted them, surely their punishment would have been far lighter. Who knows how different the course of history could have been!
Adam and Chavah’s descendants continued in the same vein. After Kayin killed Hevel, again HaShem did not punish him instantly. Rather, He inquired, “Where is Hevel, your brother?” Kayin famously answered, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The Midrash fleshes out this reply: “You are the protector of all life, and You are asking me?! … I killed him, but You gave me the evil inclination. You are supposed to protect everyone, and You let me kill him. You are the one who killed him…. Had You accepted my offering as You did his, I would not have been jealous of him.” Incredibly, Kayin blamed Hashem! Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz, ztz”l, explains that all Kayin’s excuses stemmed from one premise: “Responsibility was not incumbent upon him.” He refused to face reality and accept that he alone was culpable. Consequently, he had no difficulty absolving himself of any guilt in the murder.
Man’s test is not simply to avoid mistakes, but to own up to those we inevitably make. It was only several hundred years that Yehudah shouldered the responsibility for his actions. Yet this gesture earned him the kingship, including that of Mashiach. Mashiach will descend from him and rectify the damage caused by Adam’s sin, because Yehudah was the first to rectify Adam’s failure to admit his mistake.
As for taking responsibility for others, Rav Shmuelevitz writes, “the tribe of Yehudah felt personally responsible for all Israel. [This tribe felt] that it should do what was incumbent upon it. Because of this feeling, it became greater than all Israel and was filled with the strength and power to cross the sea as if it were completely dry. Thus Yehudah merited kingship.” By taking responsibility and stepping into the sea, Yehudah inherited the most important role within the Jewish people.
Similarly, standing over Yosef in the pit, Yehudah could easily have kept quiet and left him to suffer his fate. The brothers all believed Yosef had sinned greatly and deserved a severe punishment. However, Yehudah recognized that to kill him or leave him to die would be unfair. Therefore, he took responsibility and saved his brother.
Responsibility is often be seen as a burden holding us back. Yehudah shows us exactly the opposite. His taking responsibility – for himself, his family, and his nation – propelled him to exalted heights. To paraphrase Rav Shmuelevitz, the moment he accepted “what was incumbent upon him,” he rose to a whole new level.
We have seen how Yehudah merited kingship and spawned Mashiach by excelling at taking responsibility. This is a key lesson for all of us. To achieve greatness, one must take responsibility for his mistakes, and take action when no one else will. If he takes that difficult step, he too – like Yehudah – will soar to great heights.
From the book “Beacons of Light”