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Vayeshev (Genesis 37-40 )

by Rabbi Yissocher Frand

Reuven heard, and he rescued [Yosef] from them, and he said, "Let us not murder him." (Gen. 37:21)

The issues were complex. Yosef's brothers had sat in judgment and decided that he posed a mortal threat to them. They deemed him a rodef, a stalker bent on destruction, and they condemned him to death. But Reuven wanted no part of it. When he heard what they intended to do, he objected and suggested they toss Yosef into a pit instead. His intention was to come back later and spirit Yosef out of the pit and bring him back safely to Yaakov. But it did not work out that way.

The Midrash comments (Rus Rabbah 5:6), "Had Reuven known that Hashem would write in the Torah, 'Reuven heard and rescued [Yosef] from them,' he would have snatched Yosef and carried him back to his father on his shoulders." The Midrash also makes a similar comment about Aharon. "Had Aharon known that Hashem would write in the Torah, 'Behold, he will come out to welcome you,' he would have greeted Moshe with music and dancing." And Boaz also merits such a comment, "Had Boaz known that Hashem would write in the Torah, 'And he tossed [Ruth] roasted grains, and she ate her fill and left some over,' he would have served her a feast of fatted calves."

What exactly is the Midrash saying here? At first glance, Reuven, Aharon and Boaz seem to be portrayed as publicity hounds. If they had known how much press coverage and exposure they could receive, they would have done things differently. As it was, however, unaware that the public would scrutinize their acts so closely, they did not overextend themselves.

But this cannot be the intent of the Midrash, which clearly comes to praise them, not to bury them. But if so, why didn't these three righteous people do the right thing even without the additional publicity?

The issue in all three cases, apparently, was not one of publicity but of clarity. None of them was certain he was doing the right thing. However, had he known Hashem would endorse his decision and emblazon it in the Torah for all eternity, he would have acted in a much more decisive and resolute way.

Reuven had to contend with his brothers, the future tribal patriarchs of the Jewish people, men of great scholarship, righteousness and character. They had sat in judgment and condemned Yosef to death. As much as Reuven objected to the decision of the majority, could he be absolutely certain that he was right and they were wrong? And so Reuven acted tentatively. He persuaded them to toss Yosef into the pit, hoping to sneak back later and pull him out to safety. Had he known Hashem would write in the Torah, "And Reuven heard, and he rescued Yosef," had he known Hashem would endorse his view rather than that of his brothers, he would have acted more decisively. He would have hoisted Yosef onto his shoulders and carried him back to his father.

When Aharon went out to greet Moshe, he also had his doubts. After all, he was the older son, the acknowledged leader of the Jewish people in captivity, a man who enjoyed the gift of prophecy. How would people look at it if he stepped aside in favor of his younger brother? Wasn't the younger brother obliged to honor his older brother? If so, how could he assume a superior position? And so Aharon, who was prepared to accept Moshe as the leader with the least bit of resentment, whose heart was filled to bursting with joy at the prospect of seeing his brother, went forth to greet Moshe, but he suppressed his natural urge to bring musicians and dancers. He did not have the confidence to make such a public spectacle of their reunion. Had he known Hashem would write in the Torah, "Behold, he will come out to welcome you," he would have brought the music and the dancers.

Boaz was afraid of the appearance of impropriety. He was concerned that people seeing him give food to the young maiden Ruth would raise an arch eyebrow and snicker, "Hey, what's going on with Boaz and Ruth? Isn't she a little too young for him?" Had he known Hashem would endorse his actions, he would have laid out a lavish feast for her.

The Midrash concludes, "In days gone by, a person would do a mitzvah and the prophet would record it. But now, when a person does a mitzvah and people mock him, who records who was right? Eliyahu and Mashiach write it down and the Holy One, Blessed is He, signs in affirmation, as it is written (Malachi 3:16), 'Then those who fear Hashem spoke to one another and Hashem listened...'"

The problem of hesitation in the face of criticism and scorn plagues us in every generation. The prophet Malachi foretells a time, just prior to the Messianic era, when people will ridicule those who do mitzvot, but Eliyahu, Mashiach and Hashem Himself will give the seal of approval to those with the courage to do what is right. The prophet encourages us not to hesitate, not to act tentatively when others accuse us of not being "modern" enough or "progressive" enough. We need not worry that we are in the minority and our detractors are in the majority. We need to act according to the conviction of our beliefs, and in the end, we will surely be vindicated.

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