With great responsibility comes great power.
The drama continues. A disguised Yosef is keeping Shimon locked up and threatening to deny any more food to Yaakov’s family until the youngest is brought down to Egypt. Desperate and starving, the brothers beg their father to entrust them with precious Binyamin, but Yaakov is unwilling and refuses to be persuaded.
Well, at least that’s what happens when Reuven asks. His confident declaration that he will “return Binyamin safely” is swiftly rejected by Yaakov (B’reishis 42:37-38). Yet, surprisingly, when Yehudah makes a nearly identical appeal – guaranteeing the safety of his brother – Yaakov relents and allows him to take Binyamin on the dangerous journey (43:8-13).
What changed? What did Yehudah offer that Reuven had not?
The Sheim MiShmuel (Rabbi Shmuel Borenstein, d. 1926) offers a very insightful answer. While Reuven did assert forcefully that he would return Binyamin home, he fell short of actually guaranteeing it. By contrast, Yehudah declared: I will guarantee him; from my hands you can expect him. If I do not return him to you, I will be held accountable forever (43:9). In other words, when Yehudah took on personal responsibility, he was effectively reassuring Yaakov that he would stand up to any obstacle. Even a fully confident person may give up when the task becomes seemingly impossible; only someone who has actually committed to completing his mission will have the resolve to persevere against all adversity.
In fact, this is exactly what plays out in the end. When Binyamin finally enters Egypt, he is arrested on false charges and taken prisoner by the mighty viceroy of the country. An impossible situation: How could ten brothers take on an entire empire?! Nine of them don’t even try; they shrink in defeat. Only one brother steps forward to go head-to-head with the insurmountable challenge: Yehudah.
Rav Shimon Schwab zt”l explained that it was only because Yehudah had taken personal responsibility to defend Binyamin that he later had the tenacity to actually do so. He could not sit back, he could not look to someone else to do the job – he had committed to the task! And he left no escape clause in the contract. Whatever the challenge, whatever the odds, Yehudah had no choice but to persevere. And ultimately, this is what wore down Yosef. This is what united the family that had been so fractured for more than 20 years!
Sometimes we say we’ll “try our best,” without really knowing what that is. And as long as we have the option to back out or let someone else step up, we might never find out. It is only by making a commitment to others and holding ourselves accountable to them that we are pushed to discover our true capabilities. We’ve all heard that with great power comes great responsibility, but the converse is true as well: With great responsibility comes great power!