Getting The Job Done
By Rabbi Yoseph Kahanov Jax, FL
As kids, there was an elderly man who liked to tease my friends and I: “So you belong to Chabad,” he would affably rib, “All right, then you have Chachma, Bina and Daas. But what about “Seichel?” trust me, it couldn’t hurt to add a touch of Seichel into the mix.”
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As a young man, the late Chassid Rabbi S.B. Gordon once asked the Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe for guidance in how to go about reproving those who are in need of some tough love therapy. “Should one use words of rebuke,” he mused.
The Rebbe replied: “Everything in life contains a lesson in serving G-d. Now, since you have been to Turkey, you ought to derive the answer from a method employed in a Turkish Bath.”
Perspiring freely, after being warmed by the soothing heat, the visitor ascends to a higher rung which is even hotter. Once cleansed by the therapeutic steam and thoroughly relaxed, he is ready to be flogged with oak leaves by an attendant.
“This,” concluded the Rebbe, “Is how one must treat a person who is in need of reprimand: First you must warm him up with kind and loving words, then you lift him up to a higher plane; acknowledging his good side. Only then is he ready for the flogging words of rebuke.
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The Torah readings of Vayeshev, Miketz and Vayigash, shift our attention from Yaakov to his twelve celebrity sons – founders of the twelve tribes of Israel. The complex nature of their inter-relationships – particularly with regards to the despised sibling, Yosef – is the focal point of the dramatic narrative. Yosef’s sale into slavery by his jealous brothers and the build-up which led to that climactic incident, as related in the Parsha of Vayeshev, sets the stage for the poignant events that followed.
Couched in this surreal narrative of sibling rivalry and competition, are a number of sub rivalries and posturing over leadership and dominion. One such incident is the transfer of firstborn rights from Reuven to Yehuda.
The competition between Yehuda and Reuven – merely hinted to in the Torah – is rather overtly discussed in the book of Chronicles: “And the sons of Reuven, the firstborn of Israel – for he was the firstborn, but when he defiled his father’s bed, his birthright was given to the sons of Yosef the son of Israel, but not to be reckoned in the genealogy as firstborn. Because Yehuda prevailed over his brothers, and the one appointed as prince was to be from him, but the birthright belonged to Yosef – …” (Divrei Hayamim – I (Chronicles – I) 5: 1-2)
This is to say that the birthright had been taken from Reuven and divided up between Yosef and Yehuda. Yosef was given the right of inheritance (i.e., the double portion usually given to the firstborn), while Yehuda was given the leadership position.
The episode of Bilha, stated in above verses as the reason for the transfer of the firstborn privilege away from Reuven, pertains only to the rights that have been given away to Yosef. The reason is not given with regards to the leadership role that was transferred from Reuven to Yehuda. Why then has the leadership role been taken from Reuven and bestowed upon Yehuda?
It is actually hard not to feel bad for Reuven, he appears to have received the short end of the stick. Was it not Reuven who saved Yosef from his brothers’ hideous plot, by convincing them to throw him into a pit and not kill him? Was not Reuven first to offer to take full responsibility for Binyamin, so that he and his brothers be allowed to return to Egypt and replenish their food supply? In both cases it was Yehuda who showed up late only to be awarded the credit.
Why then has Reuven been denied his leadership role among the siblings? Can it be that he is an unsung hero who was outmaneuvered by Yehuda? Or does he simply not make the cut, despite being the first born of his father Yaakov? The answer is obviously the latter rather than the former.
The commentaries attribute Yehuda’s dominance to his extraordinary leadership skills. These skills are seemingly what the Torah whishes to extol through the ascendancy of Yehuda and the decline of Reuven. It his hence important for us to understand the very essence and nature of these leadership skills.
The skills are beyond single word descriptions. Words like “Leadership,” or “Responsibility” tend to fall short in describing the qualities that Yehuda so clearly possessed and Reuven so badly lacked. We’re talking here about intuitive mindsets – about instinctive attitudes towards matters that constitute life.
As we shall discover from a brief review of the narrative, Yehuda possessed a certain intuitive quality in dealing with people – a way of getting things done – which Reuven sorely lacked. The transfer of leadership from Reuven to Yehuda, hence, is not the result of Reuven’s sin, but rather as a reflection of Yehuda’s superior skills in working with others.
It’s kind of like the expression: “The Fifth volume of the Jewish Code of Jewish law.” Anyone with a bit of knowledge is aware of the fact that the Code of Jewish Law consists, in total, of four tracts. What then is meant by the fifth volume? The fifth tract refers to “Seichel;” the proper wisdom and discernment in how to apply the four volumes correctly.
Two incidents underscore Yehuda’s advanced social sensitivity, explaining why he was granted the leadership position. The first involves his role in the sale of Yosef, the second involves the effort to obtain Yaakov’s permission to take Binyamin with them to Egypt, so they could purchase food and retrieve their brother Shimon, who was being kept hostage as a guarantee that the brothers will return.
Let us have a look at how the two responded when their brothers’ conspire to kill Yosef. “They saw him from afar and before he drew near to them they plotted against him to kill him. They said to one another here comes that dreamer. Now come, let us kill him and cast him into some pit, and we shall say that a wild beast devoured him; then we shall see what will become of his dreams.” (Bereishis 37: 18-20).
At this stage Yehuda offers no response. Reuven hears of the plan and immediately tries to save Yosef: “Reuven heard it and he sought to save him from their hands, saying: Let us not take his life.” (ibid: 21)
It is now clear that it is Reuven who saves Yosef from a certain death. Were it not for his immediate intervention, Yosef would have been killed there and then. But the verse conveys another message as well, albeit covertly.
The words: “Reuven heard,” suggests that Reuven was not a participant in the brothers’ discussion. He hears them talking from the sidelines. The apparent indication is that there existed a certain distance, or lack of partnership, between Reuven and his brothers.
How effective is Reuven in his plea: “Let us not take his life?” Do the brothers listen to him?
In the next verse there is no response on the part of the brothers, but rather another utterance by Reuven. This affirms that assertion that the brothers did not listen to him, therefore he is forced to speak again in an attempt to persuade them to adopt a different plan:
What does Reuven tell his brothers? “Do not spill blood; cast him into this pit that is in the wilderness, but do not lay a hand upon him (so that he could save him from their hands, in order to restore him to his father.”) (Ibid: 22)
After failing to persuade them that killing Yosef will be regarded as a sin on their part, he proceeds to propose an alternative: instead of killing Yosef with their own hands, they should cast him into a pit.
This suggestion differs substantially from the earlier approach. Now he seemingly agrees with the brothers’ idea of killing Yosef, but suggests that it be done in a “Cleaner” way: Yosef will die by himself in the pit.
The brothers will thereby achieve two objectives. On one hand, Yosef will be dead. On the other hand, they will not be directly responsible for the death; they will not have killed him with their own hands.
As the Torah testifies, Reuven’s true intention was to save Yosef from the pit. But since the brothers would not listen to him and abandon their plans, he compromises. He outwardly accepts their objective, but offers a cleaner alternative.
While the brothers appear to have accepted Reuven’s suggestion: “They cast him into the pit as Reuven had said.” (ibid: 24) Still, they do not respond verbally to him at all. There is no utterance that expresses any attention on the part of the brothers to his words. Their inability to connect with him is almost obvious. Here is where Yehuda enters the picture:
“They sat down to eat bread, and they lifted their eyes and saw, and behold – a caravan of Ishmaelites was coming from Gilad, with camels bearing gum balm and laudanum on their way to take it down to Egypt. And Yehuda said to his brothers: What profit is it if we kill our brother and cover his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and let our hand not be upon him, for he is our brother, our flesh. And the brothers listened to him.” (Ibid: 25-27).
Let us examine Yehuda’s words and his relationship with his brothers:
Yehuda sits with his brothers to eat bread. His suggestion to them is also prefaced with the words, “Yehuda said to his brothers….” Clearly he is part of the group; he is not an outsider. This fact stands out against the background of the relations between Reuven and the brothers.
At the beginning of the story the brothers said to each other “come let us kill him” – they are unanimous in their intention. Reuven is not party to their discussion, but rather hears from the sidelines and intervenes: “Reuven heard of it and [sought to] save him from their hand.” Now too, with the brothers sitting together to eat, Reuven is not with them.
By contrast, Yehuda speaks in the first person; he includes himself together with them: “What profit is it if we kill our brother and we cover his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, …” Reuven, in contrast, spoke in the second person: “Do not spill (Al Tishpechu) blood; cast (Hashlichu) him into the pit… but do not lay (Al Tishlechu) a hand upon him.” Reuven does not count himself within the company of the brothers.
Twice, in referring to Yosef, Yehuda mentions the word “Acheinu” – our brother. This word appears both at the beginning of his speech and at the end. From the outset he creates the sense that they are talking about “Our brother.” This feeling is further reinforced when he says, “For he is our brother, our flesh.” Yehuda introduces into his words an emotion that has so far not been featured, and it touches the brothers’ hearts.
The sense of Yehuda’s partnership with them causes the brothers to listen to him, and the fact that he includes Yosef within this partnership, calling him “Our brother,” leads them to see Yosef in a different light: he is not their enemy but their brother.
Result: Yehuda’s words are accepted by the brothers, and the Torah takes pains to emphasize this: “His brothers listened to him.” Against the background of this emphasis, the failure of the brothers to listen to Reuven stands out all the more starkly.
Reuven, in contrast, does not address the sense of fraternity at all. He does not call Yosef “Our brother.” Just as he is removed from the other brothers, so he is removed from Yosef. While his words about saving him are moral, they are devoid of emotion. And his words fail to enter his brothers’ hearts.
In order to persuade people it is not sufficient to be an idealist who holds meaningful and just positions; one has to be savvy and know how to present one’s case in such a way as to enter people’s hearts, without arousing opposition. Yehuda was successful in this; Reuven failed.
After the brothers sell Yosef, “Reuven returned to the pit, and behold – Yosef was not in the pit, and he rent his garments. And he returned to his brothers and said: The child is gone; and as for me – where shall I go?” (ibid; 29-30). It is clear from the above that Reuven did not sit with his brothers to eat, nor was he present at the time of the sale. Therefore he is shocked when he returns to the pit with the intention of saving Yosef, only to discover that Yosef is not there.
The commentators offer various possibilities as to his whereabouts during this time. Some explain that he was not with his brothers because he had gone to attend to his father; others suggest that he did not eat with them because he was fasting over his sin with Bilha.
Regardless of why, the fact that Reuven was not with the brothers during the meal, testifies to his severance from them. Reuven is not one of the group; he does not regard himself as being included together with the rest of the brothers. This distance is a factor in their not accepting his words.
The fact that Reuven is not together with his brothers at this critical time is actually quite telling. Knowing that his brothers seek to kill Yosef; knowing that he has not succeeded in deterring them, how can he leave the scene at such a fateful moment? Admittedly, he intends to save Yosef – but if he would take real responsibility for his brother’s fate, he would sit with the brothers and take part in their discussion.
Reuven’s absence at these critical moments testifies to the fact that he does not follow his fraternal responsibility. While he has the best of intentions, he lacks the wisdom and agility to adjust his strategy to what’s needed for getting the job done. Whilst praying, fasting, and self perfection are very good things in the right time and place, they are not good when a fellow human being, a brother no less, is languishing in a pit fighting for his life.
The lesson is resoundingly clear: A leader must be part of the people, aware of their needs and wants, sensing their situation, both physical and spiritual.
Reuven is the eldest of the brothers, and as the firstborn he holds a position of responsibility towards what happens in the family. His intentions are good, but essentially he is unsuited for leadership and therefore his brothers do not listen to him.
Reuven’s ineffectiveness repeats itself again when he tried to persuade Yaakov to send Binyamin with the brothers so that they might obtain fresh supplies of food and retrieve Shimon.
Not only has he failed to persuade his father, his words actually have the opposite effect. Before Reuven spoke up, Yaakov merely expressed sorrow and his reservations. Now, he refuses explicitly to allow Binyamin to go, “He said: My son shall not go down with you.” Reuven’s offer has brought about a hardening of Yaakov’s stance, instead of a softening. Later on, however, Yehuda succeeds in persuading his father to send Binyamin with them.
Yehuda succeeds in persuading his brothers not to kill Yosef but rather to sell him, the ability to arouse emotion in others; of knowing what the audience will identify with and how to inspire them, distinguishes him as a true leader.
As Jews we are all leaders. We are chosen to be a Mamleches Kohanim V’Goy Kadosh and a light onto the nations. The lesson of this Parsha is hence particularly apropos. We need to learn from Reuven’s failure as well as Yehuda’s successes. While idealism is great it must not be allowed to cause us to be detached from our brethren and our community. We must remember that when a Jew is in need, spiritually or physically, we must hear his cry and respond with sensitivity and love. Most of all we must learn from Yehuda it’s important to know how to get the job done.
In doing so we will be able to get over this bitter Galus and welcome the arrival of the righteous Moshiach BBA.