The Gemara (Sanhedrin 6b) discusses different opinions of how to understand the phrase “Botzei’a Beireich Ni’eitz Hashem” (Tehillim 10:3). Rabi Meir states that this phrase refers to Yehudah in this week’s Parashah, when he says to his brothers while Yosef is in the pit: “Mah Betza Ki Naharog Et Achinu,” “What profit will we gain from killing our brother?” (BeReishit 37:26). If Rabi Meir is correct, the implication of the phrase, “Botzei’a Beireich Ni’eitz Hashem” would be “anyone who blesses Yehudah for what he did, it’s as if he cursed Hashem.”
However, this understand of Rabi Meir is very troubling. The brothers threw Yosef in a deep pit in the desert so that he wouldn’t be able to get out and there would be no one around to help him. The brothers were planning on leaving Yosef there to die, a terrible act of murder, on a brother no less. When Yehudah stepped in and told the brothers they shouldn’t kill their brother in cold blood, it definitely seems like he was acting nobly to save Yosef’s life; so why would the Gemara tell us that what Yehudah did was a terrible act and someone who applauds his behavior should be cursed?
There is a Midrash that states, “anyone who starts a Mitzvah but doesn’t complete it is punished by having to bury his wife and children.” And lo and behold, we see that this exact punishment falls upon Yehudah when his children, Eir and Onan, die (BeReishit 38). But this Midrash is even more perplexing than the Gemara! The other brothers didn’t do anything at all to help the situation, they didn’t perform even a partial Mitzvah, and we see no punishment meted out to them, especially not burying their children. So why was Yehudah punished so harshly? It would seem more appropriate for the other brothers to receive a harsh punishment!
Rav Yeruchum Levovitz gives an explanation to this difficult question. Yehudah was the leader of the brothers; therefore, he was responsible for all their actions. Being the leader, he could have stopped the evil plan in its entirety. However, he missed the opportunity to really save his brother and his father from all of their future misery.
Rav Yeruchum Levovitz also says that the brothers weren’t punished because they never even attempted to save Yosef. Yehudah, on the other hand, began and then stopped. He started the Mitzvah, and then killed the life of the Mitzvah, and for that, he was punished with the death of his children.
The severity of the punishment that was meted out to Yehudah should serve as a lesson that we must learn from, that we must take Shemirat HaMitzvot very seriously. One should not carelessly perform acts, but rather should have focus and know what he is doing and why he is doing it. If we take this message to heart and are careful to complete all our Mitzvot full-heartedly, we will, BeEzrat Hashem, not face any drastic punishments as Yehudah did.