And Reuven heard, and he rescued him from their hand.
The brothers were plotting to kill Yosef. (37:20) “Now come and let us kill him, and throw him into one of the pits, and we will say, ‘A wild beast devoured him.'” Reuven was the one brother who’s moral fabric could not allow such an atrocity to occur. (37:21-22) “Reuven heard, and he rescued him from their hand. He said, ‘Let us not strike him mortally! Shed no blood! Let us throw him into this pit, and let us lay no hand on him!’ – in order to rescue him from their hand, to return him to his father.” In the end, however, his plan fell through, for when he returned to the pit Yosef was no longer there; he had been sold into slavery.
One would think that the writings of our Sages would be replete with praise of Reuven for his noble deed. In reality, although the nobility of his act is recognized by the Sages, it is often accompanied by subtle criticism. “Rabbi Yitzchak said, ‘Had Reuven known that the Torah would record for eternity his rescue of Yosef, he would taken Yosef upon his shoulders and carried him back to his father [instead of having him cast into the pit].'” (Vayikrah Rabbah 34:8) Reuven did – but did he do enough?
There is an oft quoted Midrash on the verse in Shir HaShirim/Song of Songs (7:14), “‘HaDudaim nasnu re-ach – The mandrakes have yielded fragrance; and upon our doorsteps are all precious fruits. Both new and old have I stored away for you, my Beloved.’ ‘The mandrakes have yielded fragrance,’ – this refers to Reuven, as it is written, ‘And Reuven heard, and he rescued him from their hand.’ ‘And upon our doorsteps are all precious fruits,’ – this refers to ner Chanukah/the candles of Chanukah.” The Midrash equates Reuven’s act with a pleasant smelling flower, and the mitzvah of ner Chanukah with precious fruits. What is the message behind these diverging metaphors?
Rav Schwab z”l has a beautiful interpretation of this Midrash. What is the difference, he asks, between fragrant flowers and precious fruit? A flower, while delighting its smeller with its fragrance, doesn’t leave him with anything lasting or permanent. He smells it, enjoys it, and then it is gone. One who partakes of precious fruits, however, is not only enchanted by their taste, but is also endowed with a lasting pleasure. He eats the fruit, enjoys its taste, is nourished and sustained by it, and emerges satisfied and sated from his hunger.
Reuven’s deed, while noble, fell short. It is like the sweet smelling mandrake, who’s fragrance enchants, yet fails to leave one with lasting satisfaction. What was needed was for Reuven to take a stand. To overcome his fear of not being accepted. To raise his voice in protest and courageously declare that what they were plotting was an abomination! That he would not stand by. That if they wished to go ahead, they would have to deal with him first.
But for some reason, Reuven was unable to muster the tremendous moral strength needed to take on his brothers in the in the heat of their sin. ‘The mandrakes have yielded fragrance,’ – this refers to Reuven. His act, while noble, remains only like the mandrake, that while emitting a fleeting pleasant smell, yields no lasting benefit.
However, when people are moser nefesh, when they are able to stand up against what they know in their hearts to be wrong, such acts bear lasting fruit. That is what happened during the period of Chanukah. A small group of people had the moral strength and mesiras nefesh to stand up against overwhelming odds. The result of their mesiras nefesh were like, “Precious fruits upon our doorsteps.” The Chashmonaim endowed us with everlasting fruits: the miracle of Chanukah and the redemption of an oppressed nation.
Many times in our lives, we encounter situations which compel us to take a moral stand. It could mean refusing to shmooze with one’s friends during davening (prayer), subjecting himself to their ridicule. It could mean the ba’al-bos (businessman) refusing to deal dishonestly, much to the dismay of his customers and business associates, perhaps even at the risk of losing business. The student in school who balks and refuses to take part in the lashon hara (gossip) of his friends. The father/mother who will not allow their family to go on a trip if they feel the destination is less than desirable.
Mostly, no one stands up and applauds the person who takes a stand and goes against the tide. Perhaps many years down the road, the brothers might have thanked Reuven for, “taking Yosef upon his shoulders and carrying him back to Yaakov.” At the time, they likely would have tried to kill him along with Yosef. Yet these very times, these “moments of truth,” are indeed what define – more than anything else – the moral fibre of a Jew. Did he stand up for his Yiddishkeit (Judaism) when it was difficult? When it subjected him to shame and ridicule? When it required courage and determination?
As Chanukah approaches, let us derive strength and courage from the Chashmonaim, and renew our determination to lead the lives of true Torah Jews.