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Vayechi 5780-2020

“The Critical Importance of Timing”
(updated and revised from Vayechi 5760-1999)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Vayechi, includes almost a full chapter (Genesis 49) with 28 verses of extraordinarily powerful poetry.

In this parasha, Jacob blesses his children. Clearly, it is much more than a blessing. In fact, it is Jacob’s prophetic assessment of the unique natures of his children–the tribes of Israel and, in certain instances, the future missions that the tribes will fulfill.

Through these wondrous words of poetry, Jacob, in effect, designates the leadership roles that certain of his children will play. These designations will ultimately have a major impact on Jewish history.

Jacob determines which of his first-born children will be regarded as the legal firstborn, entitled to the birthright. After all, Jacob has four sons, each of whom is the firstborn to his mother. Joseph ultimately emerges as the firstborn, who receives the double portion in the land of Israel. Jacob then chooses Levi to be the religious leader of Israel. Finally, the temporal leader, the King, is chosen, the most exalted of all the brothers, and that is Yehudah, Judah.

Of all the sons of Jacob, Reuben, the eldest, is perhaps the most tragic. Listen to the beautiful poetic words of Genesis 49:3 concerning Reuben. Jacob says, רְאוּבֵן, בְּכֹרִי אַתָּה , Reuben, you are my firstborn, כֹּחִי, וְרֵאשִׁית אוֹנִי יֶתֶר שְׂאֵת, וְיֶתֶר עָז , you are the first of my strength and the first of my power, you are foremost in rank, and foremost in power. You Reuben, have all the natural advantages of the firstborn, says Jacob.

But then, in a sudden change, Jacob, in Genesis 49:4, says, פַּחַז כַּמַּיִם אַל תּוֹתַר , You, Reuben, are impetuous like water, you cannot be the foremost, כִּי עָלִיתָ מִשְׁכְּבֵי אָבִיךָ אָז חִלַּלְתָּ, יְצוּעִי עָלָה , because you mounted the bed of your father, you violated the couch upon which you rose up!

How could such a good person, a good-hearted and well-intentioned person like Reuben, finish last? He’s always ready to do the right thing.

When we first encounter Reuben as an adult, it is at the time of the wheat harvest. Reuben goes out to the fields, and scripture, in Genesis 30:14, says, וַיִּמְצָא דוּדָאִים בַּשָּׂדֶה , he finds mandrakes. The mandrakes were a fertility drug that Reuben brings to his mother Leah, so that she would have more children. Reuben is always prepared to help.

Reuben’s intentions are always noble, even in the instance where Jacob condemns Reuben for violating his bed. As described in Genesis 35:22, the Torah states, וַיֵּלֶךְ רְאוּבֵן וַיִּשְׁכַּב אֶת בִּלְהָה פִּילֶגֶשׁ אָבִיו , Reuben goes out, sleeps with Bilhah, his father’s concubine. When Rachel, Jacob’s beloved wife dies, because of Jacob’s special affection for Rachel, he moves his bed into Bilhah’s tent, because after all, Bilhah was Rachel’s handmaiden. Reuben considered this an affront to his mother Leah, and took upon himself to move Jacob’s bed into Leah’s tent. Although Reuben did nothing more than tamper with the location of his father’s bed, scripture considers it as if he had committed adultery, because he interfered with his father’s right to conduct his marital life as he saw fit.

Only because of Reuben’s exalted stature would such a deed be described as immoral. But, all along, Reuben’s intentions are entirely  noble.

In Genesis 37:12, scripture reports that the brothers go to Shechem to tend the sheep. It could very well be that the brothers wanted to escape the turmoil of Jacob’s home, and Shechem was the last place that they truly felt unified when they rose up to defend their sister Dina. Previously, Joseph had dreamed two dreams, the interpretations of which were clearly that his brothers would bow down to Joseph. Adding salt to the wound, Joseph was wearing the hated multi-colored coat of colors. The brothers’ hatred for Joseph is so great, that when they see Joseph coming toward them from afar, they conspire to murder him.

Reuben recognizes his brother’s intentions and rises to the occasion to save Joseph. Reuben says to his siblings (Genesis 37:21), לֹא נַכֶּנּוּ נָפֶשׁ , “Let’s not commit murder. How can we kill our brother?” He suggests, instead, that they throw Joseph into a pit. Scripture actually testifies that Reuben’s true intentions were entirely noble. He planned to return to the pit and save Joseph. But, the plans go awry.

Apparently, without Reuben’s knowledge, the brothers sell Joseph to a caravan of Ishmaelites and Midianites on their way to Egypt. When Reuben returns to the pit and sees that Joseph is gone, he rends his garments, and desperately cries that without the lad, he cannot face his poor father. The rabbis say that the reason that Reuben was unaware that the brothers had sold Joseph, was because he had returned to Hebron to minister to old Jacob, since it was his turn to do so. Reuben had good intentions, but his timing was very off! How could he leave without being certain that Joseph was safe?

The final encounter with Reuben is found toward the end of the Joseph saga, in Genesis 42:37. The brothers have returned from their first visit to Egypt. Joseph has accused them of being spies, and Simeon was held captive. To prove their innocence, the brothers could only return to Egypt if Benjamin was with them.

Back in Canaan, in order to convince Jacob to allow Benjamin to go to Egypt, Reuben promises to protect Benjamin. “If I fail to bring Benjamin back safely,” Reuben says to his father,(Genesis 42:37),  אֶת שְׁנֵי בָנַי תָּמִית , “You can kill my two sons.” תְּנָה אֹתוֹ עַל יָדִי וַאֲנִי אֲשִׁיבֶנּוּ אֵלֶיךָ , “Give him to me, I promise to bring him back.” Jacob, however, rejects the offer.

It’s interesting how Rashi describes this rejection. When the elderly Jacob hears Reuben’s offer, he says to Reuben: !בְּכוֹר שׁוֹטֶה “You may be the oldest, but you’re a fool! What do I gain by having my two grandchildren killed if you don’t return Benjamin? What kind of offer is that?”

And yet, a few verses later (Genesis 43:8-9), Judah makes a similar offer, that Jacob accepts. Judah says: “Send the lad with me, and we will arise and go, so that both we and our children will not die.” אָנֹכִי אֶעֶרְבֶנּוּ מִיָּדִי תְּבַקְשֶׁנּוּ , “I will be surety for him, you’ll demand him of me. If I don’t bring him back to you, then I will be sinful to you all the days of my life.”

Jacob was undoubtedly repulsed by the immorality of Reuben’s suggestion that he kill his own grandsons. But, Reuben’s offer was also rejected because of the timing.

Judah’s offer was made after the family’s food in Canaan was completely depleted, and the starving children were crying. The situation was desperate. Reuben’s offer was made soon after the brothers had returned to Canaan from Egypt with their donkeys laden with food. You might have the best intentions, but if your timing is off, the offer is ineffective.

This emphasis on timing is a frequently repeated theme in Jewish tradition. In Pirkei Avot 4:18, there are three germane statements. It states, אַל תְּרַצֶּה אֶת חֲבֵרְךָ בִּשְׁעַת כַּעֲסוֹ , Do not try to calm a person at the moment of his great anger. אַל תְנַחֲמֶנּוּ בְּשָׁעָה שֶׁמֵּתוֹ מֻטָּל לְפָנָיו , Do not try to console a friend when the body of the deceased is still warm, when the dead is still in front of him. And, finally, וְאַל תֹּאמַר דָּבָר שֶׁאִי אֶפְשַׁר לִשְׁמֽוֹעַ , Try not to say something that cannot be understood, even though eventually it will be understood. Timing is critical!

In closing, I share a cogent essay written by Charles Swindoll about “attitude.” He writes:

The longer I live, the more I realize the impact of attitude on life. Attitude, to me, is more important than facts. It is more important than the past, than education, than money, than circumstances, than failures, than successes, than what other people think or say or do. It is more important than appearances, giftedness, or skill. It will make or break a company…a church…a home. The remarkable thing is that we have a choice every day regarding the attitude we will embrace for that day. We cannot change our past…we cannot change the fact that people will act in a certain way. We cannot change the inevitable. The only thing we can do, is play on the one string that we have, and that is our attitude…I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me, and 90% how I react to it. And, so it is with you…we are in charge of our attitudes.

Attitudes may be critical, but timing can validate or invalidate even the most vaunted and best intentions and attitudes. And, so we learn from Reuben to not only say the right thing, but to say the right thing at the right time.

May you be blessed.

Please note: The Fast of the 10th of Tevet will be observed this year on Tuesday, January 7, 2020, from dawn to nightfall. It commemorates the start of the siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, which led to the ultimate destruction of the Temple on the 9th of Av.