The splitting of the Yam Suf (known as krias Yam Suf) is one of the seminal events in Jewish history. Chazal and the commentaries derive numerous lessons from this great miracle. A less well-known aspect of krias 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 (achrayus) to take the first brave steps. Finally, the tribe of Yehuda jumped into the sea and sanctified G-d’s name . The Tosefta explains that this was one of the actions that earned the tribe of Yehuda the merit of being the tribe of Malchus (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 achrayus 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 hashkafa in this area.
In contrast to the negative view of responsibility, the Torah views taking achrayus as highly empowering; Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz zt"l writes about this in his description of the significance of Shevet Yehuda's first steps into the sea., “at that time the tribe of Yehuda felt personally responsible for all of Israel and that he (Yehuda) 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 Yehuda merited to be King .” By taking responsibility for others, Yehuda 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 Yehuda show us exactly the opposite is true. It was his midda 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 chosson (newly married man) and someone who has risen in greatness, all receive atonement for their sins .” The Yerushalmi proceeds to give the example of Esav as the source that a chosson 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 Yerushalmi derives that all of their sins were forgiven when she married Esav. Rav Shmuelevitz proves from the choice of the evil Esav and his idol-worshipping wife that a person who gets married receives atonement even without teshuva 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 chosson 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 .” 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 midda 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 Yehuda made a momentous decision to take responsibility and not shift it onto others. May we too merit to take responsibility and thus achieve our potential.