Rabbi O’s Weekly Parsha: Beshalach (Exodus 13:17-17:16)

Interested in Reaching Your Potential? Take Responsibility 

Although the splitting of the Sea is one of the most significant events in Jewish history, few talk about the events immediately preceding it.  The tribes were arguing about who should leap first into the Sea, each attempting to avoid taking the first step. Finally, Nachshon from te of Yehuda (Judah) jumped in. According to the Tosefta (Brachos 4:16), this courageous jump was one of the achievements earning Yehuda’s tribe a unique distinction—Jewish kings would ultimately descend from this tribe due to his taking responsibility when no one else would.

Responsibility is scary for some because it entails commitment and usually taking a stance. If someone takes responsibility for a soup kitchen for battered women, they are not only responsible for making sure meals are out on time but also that if some other (non-battered) woman, even if perhaps she is in need, comes, that she must be told that due to the focus of this particular soup kitchen, she can’t eat there. It’s uncomfortable but necessary in order to keep the kitchen up and running. Some people spend their lives avoiding positions of responsibility in order to lead a life of a path of least resistance but this is antithetical to Judaism.

Abraham and Sara, Isaac and Rivka, Jacob and Rachael and Leah, were willing to put themselves in difficult positions in order to insure that their message—ethical monotheism—would take route in the world. Moses left the comfort Pharaoh palace to help Jews. People think responsibility limits them but it actually empowers them. When the Israelites were being pursued by the massive Egyptian army the tribe of Yehuda felt personally responsible for all of Israel and did what needed to be done. His awareness and the action he initiated caused this tribe have the most important leadership role among the Jewish people. 

Here’s the take home message: although responsibility appears to be a restricting burden, it actually is the trait necessary for realizing your potential. The moment Yehuda accepted responsibility, he rose to a new level of potential. I’ve known many communal leaders over the years, some of whom one might have predicted from childhood but others, men and women I’ve known since they were teenagers, who accepted responsibility and became someone far greater than any of us would have imagined. When you stand up for Judaism and the Jewish people, G-d “stands up” for you and you will attain heights you never thought possible. 

The Jerusalem Talmud (Bikurim 3:3) teaches that an additional gift is granted to one who accepts responsibility:

        Regarding a sage, a groom (or bride), and the community leader, their exalted position atones for their sins. 

What do all three have in common? They have taken on the responsibility for the welfare of others. Someone is given a clean slate because they are willing (1) to going beyond what feels comfortable and (2) and forces them to live up to a higher standard because they now must be an example for the people for whom they are responsible.

What does it take to shoulder responsibility? It’s pretty simple—just decide to do it. We aren’t robots; G-d has given us the gift of free choice for a reason—to make decisions affecting others in a positive way. If people make that choice, then they can become totally new creations whose past is left behind. 

With the raging sea on one side and the Egyptian army on the other, the members of the Tribe of Yehuda made a momentous decision to take responsibility and not shift it onto others. G-d isn’t asking us to jump into raging waters but He does enjoin us to leave our comfort zone and build families and communities and He’s willing to wipe the slate clean to facilitate it.

Be a bit daring, jump in and take on a project or some other position of leadership. Fear not, you won’t drown, you might actually fly.

Good Shabbos