When the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Sholom Dov Ber, was a small boy, he played a game with his older brother, Reb Zalman Aaron. The game was “Rebbe and Chassid.” Reb Zalman Aaron, who was a year older, played the Rebbe, and Rabbi Sholom Dov Ber played the Chassid.

Reb Sholom Dov Ber asked the “Rebbe” for advice on how to correct a shortcoming. “This past Shabbat,” he confessed, “I cracked and ate nuts, but then I learned that it’s best not to eat nuts on Shabbat because the shells are muktzah (forbidden to touch).”

The “Rebbe” thought for a second and then gave advice. “You should look into the siddur when you pray. Do not pray by heart.”

Reb Sholom Dov Ber responded: “You’re not a real Rebbe, and your advice won’t help!”

“Why not?” asked Reb Zalman Aaron, puzzled. “I gave you good advice, didn’t I?”

“When a Rebbe gives an answer, he lets out a sigh first. You didn’t sigh first, so you’re not a real Rebbe!”

To Reb Zalman Aaron, a Rebbe is a wise man who gives advice. If his advice is correct, his job is done.

But Reb Sholom Dov Ber, the future Rebbe, saw it differently. A Rebbe doesn’t just give advice. He bonds with the other person and deeply feels his plight. Whatever pains the other pains him, too. Therefore, before giving advice, he sighs.

This is not a slight on Reb Zalman Aaron. He grew to be a highly intelligent, wonderful person. But not a Rebbe.

The distinction between these two approaches is highlighted in this week’s Torah portion, in the contrast between another set of brothers: Reuben and Judah. Both were great men, but only one was a leader.

There were two scenarios in which the brothers acted in remarkably similar ways, yet the outcome was radically different. Both immediately owned up to a lapse in judgment, and both attempted to save Joseph’s life. Yet Reuben lost his rights as firstborn, and Judah was rewarded with kingship.

Reuben’s mistake occurred after the passing of Rachel, Jacob’s wife. Jacob’s bed was regularly in Rachel’s tent due to her status as the primary, preferred wife. Reuben assumed that after Rachel’s death, that status would pass to his mother, Leah. Instead, Jacob moved his bed into the tent of Bilhah, Rachel’s maidservant. This was more than Reuben could bear, and he moved his father’s bed into his own mother’s tent. It was a serious error: his father’s sleeping arrangements were none of his concern. Reuben spent the rest of his life repenting for this misdeed.

Judah’s mistake came in the case of his daughter-in-law, Tamar. She had been consecutively married to two of Judah’s sons, Er and Onan, who both died, leaving her a childless widow. Tamar waited in vain for Judah to offer her his third son, Shelah, to fulfill the mitzvah of yibum, or levirate marriage. But Judah had no intention of putting the life of his sole surviving son at risk. When Tamar realized what was afoot, she disguised herself as a harlot and induced Judah to come to her. They were intimate, and Tamar conceived twins. When her pregnancy became visible, it was assumed that she committed adultery. Judah, acting as judge, condemned her to death by burning. As she was being taken away, Tamar held out Judah’s staff, seal and cloak, which he had given her as a pledge, and said: “The man to whom these belong is the father of my child.” Tamar delicately put the ball in Judah’s court, leaving it up to him to identify himself.

Judah now faced a dilemma: If he failed to own up, innocent lives would perish. Despite his humiliation, he said: “She is right! It is from me!” Tamar’s life was spared, and she gave birth to twin boys, one of whom, Peretz, became the ancestor of King David.

Putting these two cases side by side, though, it’s hard to see why Judah was superior. He confessed once, while Reuben repented for the rest of his life. And Judah had little choice but to confess or he’d have the loss of three lives on his conscience. Reuben had no such imperative.

Similarly, in the case of Joseph, it seems that Reuben did more to save him than Judah did. When his brothers wanted to kill him, Reuben suggested throwing Joseph into a pit, with the intention of returning later to retrieve him. Judah suggested selling him into slavery—not to save his life but because it would be a “waste” to let him die. But while Reuben’s intentions may have been nobler, Judah’s actions had a more immediate impact.

A virtuous person thinks in terms of duties and responsibilities. What is my role? What is my obligation? And being a dutiful, responsible person, he fulfills it. But a leader thinks in terms of needs. What are the needs of this person? This organization? This population? And on sensing a need, he doesn’t rest until it has been filled.

This is why Judah was effective where Reuben was not. Reuben admitted his mistake in moving his father’s bed and spent the rest of his life repenting. He was so busy repenting, in fact, that while Joseph was lying in the pit, Reuben was absent from the scene. Judah was the one who made the fateful decision to lift Joseph out of the pit and sell him into slavery, thereby saving his life. And while Reuben’s repentance elevated him spiritually, Judah’s confession directly saved three lives.

With Reuben, his father’s criticism was that he was “impetuous like water.” He moved too quickly, without deliberation. What was the difference between his hastiness and Judah’s quick action? When Reuben moved his father’s bed, his only thought was for himself—his own anger at the affront to his mother’s honor. He didn’t stop to think how his actions would impact others. This failure to consider the needs of others is what cost him the kingship. In contrast, Judah’s actions were all about protecting someone else.

The Rebbe once remarked that in America, people “run” for public office. What’s the connection between running and holding office? Wouldn’t it seem preferable for a leader to be more cautious and deliberate? But what we really need in a leader is someone who will take initiative, who will run and get things done.1

When I studied this teaching of the Rebbe about the contrasting styles between Reuben and Judah, my first thought was, which type am I? Am I a Reuben or a Judah? Do I have what it takes to be a leader? And then I caught myself. To ask this question is to miss the point. Leaders don’t ask themselves whether they have leadership qualities; they simply see a need and jump in to fulfill it.

Still, because this is a story recorded in Torah, there is something we can learn from it, whether we’re leadership material or not. Our very name—Jew—derives from Judah, indicating that we all have the power of Judah within us. We can all learn to expand our vision a bit, to look beyond our own needs, even our own spiritual needs, in order to focus on the needs of others. Not to think about how I am doing (whether I’m a good parent, a good teacher, a good person) but about the people I’m responsible for.

A subtle shift in focus makes all the difference.