Our Sages, in Tosefta Berachot 4:17-18, ask a fundamental question: “Why did Yehuda merit kingship?” After all, each of the brothers was great in his own way. Why, then, was Yehuda’s tribe permanently given the mantel of leadership?
One answer offered by the Tosefta is, “Because of his humility.” This is demonstrated in Vayigash, where Yehuda calls himself a “servant” no less than four times, and even offers to become Yosef’s slave — all in an effort to save Binyamin from that role.
He tells Yosef, “Please, my lord, let now your servant speak something into my lord’s ears, and let not your anger be kindled against your servant. … For your servant assumed responsibility for the boy, from my father, saying, ‘If I do not bring him to you, I will have sinned against my father forever.’ So now, please let your servant stay instead of the boy as a slave to my lord, and may the boy go up with his brothers.”
Midrash Bamidbar Rabbah 13:3 focuses upon Yehuda’s humility as reflected in these verses, and declares this to be the rationale for his tribe’s subsequent position of glory and honor:
“Rabbi Berechya the Kohen, the son of Rabi, said in the name of Rabbi Levi: ‘The Holy One Blessed be He said: ‘Yehuda, since you have lowered yourself before your younger brother [to rescue him from servitude], when the Mishkan will be erected and all the tribes will come to offer [korbanot], no tribe will offer before you. Rather, they will all show respect and you will have [the honor] of being the first to bring [the sacrifices].’ Therefore, the Torah states: ‘And the one [of the tribal princes] who brought sacrifices on the first day… from the tribe of Yehuda…’”
We live in an age wherein arrogance is the rule, and humility is the exception. In truth, arrogance is the single greatest barrier to authentic humility, since it blinds us to the consequences of our actions and beguiles us into believing we are superior to others.
As such, the Ramban, in his famous Iggeret HaRamban, strongly warns us against this negative trait, telling his son that “whoever feels that he is greater than others is rebelling against the Kingship of Hashem, because he is adorning himself with His garments, as it is written, ‘Hashem reigns, He wears clothes of pride’” (Tehillim 93:1).
Next, the Ramban notes that whether it is wealth, honor or wisdom — everything is a gift from the Almighty:
“Why should one feel proud? Is it because of wealth? Hashem makes one poor or rich (Shmuel I:2:7). Is it because of honor? It belongs to Hashem, as we read, ‘Wealth and honor come from You’ (Divrei Hayamim I:29:12). So how could one adorn himself with Hashem’s honor? One who is proud of his wisdom knows that Hashem ‘takes away the speech of assured men and reasoning from sages’ (Iyov 12:20). Everyone is the same before Hashem; with His anger He lowers the proud, and when He wishes He raises the low.”
The Ramban is teaching us that greatness comes from G-d, and G-d alone. How, then, can we avoid the pitfalls of arrogance, and, like Yehuda, live lives infused with humility? We are fortunate that the Ramban addresses this fundamental question:
“In all your actions, words and thoughts, regard yourself as standing before Hashem, with His Presence above you, for His glory fills the whole world. Speak with fear and awe, as a slave standing before his master. Act with restraint in front of everyone. When someone calls you, don’t answer loudly, but gently and softly, as one who stands before his master.”
In short, when we truly feel ourselves to be in G-d’s presence, we naturally act with humility before Him — and with restraint and dignity toward others.
Yehuda had an extremely powerful sense of the Almighty’s presence in his life, and very often felt the gentle touch of the Shechinah upon his shoulder. As such, humility came quite naturally to him. Little wonder, then, that his descendant, King David, would one day proclaim to the world: “Sheviti Hashem l’negdi tamid”(“I have placed the L-rd before me constantly,” Tehillim 16:8).
May each of us try to emulate Yehuda and recognize the Almighty’s unceasing presence in our lives, so that we, too, may reject arrogance, embrace humility, and act with abiding respect toward each other.