The splitting of the See of Reeds (known as kriat Yam Suf) is one of the seminal events in Jewish history. The Rabbis and the commentaries derive numerous lessons from this great miracle. A less well-known aspect of kriat Yam Suf is described in a Tosefta that recalls the events immediately preceding the first bold steps into the sea.
The Tosefta tells us that at the Yam Suf, all the tribes were arguing about who should step into the sea first, each one trying to avoid the responsibility (achrayut) to take the first brave steps. Finally, the tribe of Judah jumped into the sea and sanctified God's name.(1) The Tosefta explains that this was one of the actions that earned the tribe of Judah the merit of being the tribe of Malchut (kingship). He was willing to be proactive whilst everyone else was seeking to shirk responsibility, thus he was awarded with the eternal responsibility of leading the Jewish people.
The word, 'responsibility' sometimes arouses negative connotations in people - it is difficult and even uncomfortable to have to assume responsibility. Accordingly, a person may be content to avoid positions of achrayut throughout his life in his quest to avoid uncomfortable situations. However, it seems that a desire to avoid responsibility does not accord with the Torah outlook in this area.
In contrast to the negative view of responsibility, the Torah views taking responsibility as highly empowering; Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz writes about this in his description of the significance of the Tribe of Judah's first steps into the sea, "at that time the tribe of Judah felt personally responsible for all of Israel and that he (Judah) should do what was incumbent upon him - because of this feeling, he became greater than all of Israel, and was filled with a strength and power to cross the sea as if it was completely dry, it was through this that Judah merited to be King." (2) By taking responsibility for others, Judah inherited the most important role among the Jewish people. We see from here a crucial idea: Responsibility can often be seen as a burden, something which restricts us and forces us to do things that we do not want to do. The actions of Judah show us exactly the opposite is true. It was his trait of taking responsibility, for himself, his family and his nation, that enabled him to reach such exalted heights. As Rav Shmuelevitz says, at the very moment that he accepted "what was incumbent upon him", it was then that he rose to a whole new level. The same is true for each person, if he stands up and takes responsibility for himself and his people, then he too can attain heights that he never thought possible.
Rav Shmuelevitz goes even further in another piece. He brings a Yerushalmi in Bikurim: "A wise man, a newly married man (chattan) and someone who has risen in greatness, all receive atonement for their sins." (3) The Jerusalem Talmud proceeds to give the example of Esau as the source that a chattan receives atonement - he married a woman the Torah calls 'Machlah', but that was not her real name. The name 'Machlah' comes from the root word of 'mochel' - 'to forgive'. From here the Jerusalem Talmud derives that all of their sins were forgiven when she married Esau. Rav Shmuelevitz proves from the choice of the evil Esau and his idol-worshipping wife that a person who gets married receives atonement even without repentance for they clearly did not repent their sins. Even on Yom Kippur a person only receives atonement with repentance, why here is atonement so easily attained? He answers, "it would seem that the uniqueness of the chattan is that he accepts responsibility for his wife, and there is nothing greater that someone who accepts upon himself the yoke of responsibility. Therefore they forgive him for all his sins, and give him heavenly help to succeed in his new obligation, and they remove from him all of his past, so that he can live up to his new responsibility." (4) Taking a new level of responsibility is such a great feat that a person is given a clean slate - he now lives on a whole new level of existence!
We have seen how predominant the trait of responsibility is in a person's life. It is no less than the decisive factor in determining the heights a person reaches in his life. All that is required for a person is to make the free will decision to take responsibility for himself and the world around him. Free will is in essence, the ability to make choices, to decide to change, to grow, to live up to our true potential. If a person makes that choice, then he can become a totally new creation, one whose past is left behind.
Facing the raging sea, the members of the Tribe of Judah made a momentous decision to take responsibility and not shift it onto others. May we too merit to take responsibility and achieve our potential.
1. Tosefta, Brachos, Ch.4, Halacha 16.
2. Sichos Mussar, Maamer 20, p. 84.
3. Ch. 3, hal .3.
4. Sichos Mussar, Maamer 23, p. 98.