“How Important is Timing?”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Vayechi, is an exalted collection of poetry. In this parasha, Jacob blesses his children, but it is more than a blessing. In fact, it is a designation of unique missions that the tribes of Israel will fulfill. Jacob, in effect, through this beautiful poetry, chooses who will be the first born, entitled to the birthright. After all, Jacob has four sons who are first born to their mothers. The one that emerges as the ultimate first born is Joseph, who gets the double portion. Then, Jacob chooses Levi to be the religious leader of Israel. And finally, the one who will be the temporal leader, the King, is chosen, the most exalted of all the brothers, and that is Yehudah, Judah.

But of all the sons of Jacob, perhaps Reuben, the eldest, is the most tragic. Just listen to the beautiful words of poetry in Genesis 49:3 concerning Reuben. Jacob says, “Reuven, b’chori ata”, Rueben, you are my first born, “kochee v’raishit o’nee”, you are the first of my strength and the first of my power, “yeter s’ayt, v’yeter az,” you are foremost in rank, and foremost in power. You, Reuben, have all the natural advantages, says Jacob.

But then, in a sudden change in verse 4, Jacob says, “pachad ka’mayim al totar“, you, Reuben, are impetuous like water, you cannot be the foremost. “Ki alita mishkavey aveecha,” because you mounted the bed of your father, “az chilalta y’tzoo’ee alah“, you violated the couch upon which you rose up on.

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

When we first encounter Reuben as an adult in Genesis 30:14, it is the time of the wheat harvest season. Reuben goes out to the fields, scripture says, “va’yimzta dudaim ba’sadeh“, and finds mandrakes, which were a fertility drug. He brings them to his mother Leah, so that she would have more children. It’s such a beautiful statement. He’s always there to help.

And even in the particular instance where Jacob attacks Reuben for violating his bed, in Genesis 35:22, “va’yelech Reuven, va’yishkav Bilha pilegesh aviv”, Reuben goes out, and scripture says, he sleeps with Bilha, his father’s concubine, Reuben’s intentions were truly noble. Rachel, Jacob’s beloved wife had died; Jacob moves his bed into Bilha’s tent, because after all, Bilha was Rachel’s handmaiden, and this was the closest that he could get to be with his beloved Rachel. Reuben considered this an affront to his mother Leah, and took upon himself to move Jacob’s bed into Leah’s tent. And although Reuben did nothing more than tamper with his father’s bed, scripture considers it as if he had committed adultery, because he interfered with another’s right to conduct his marital life as he saw fit.

Figuratively, for someone of Reuben’s stature, such a deed could be described as an immoral act. But all along, Reuben really has noble intentions.

Again, in Genesis 37:21, the brothers see Joseph coming towards them. Remember, Joseph had dreamt a dream, the interpretation of which was clearly that his brothers would bow down to him. Adding salt to the wound, Joseph was wearing the hated multi-colored coat of colors. The hatred for Joseph is so great that all the brothers conspire to murder him. Reuben recognizes his brother’s intentions, and rises to the occasion. In order to save Joseph, he says, “lo nakenu nafesh,” let’s not commit murder, how could we kill our brother? He suggests instead that they throw Joseph into the pit. Scripture actually testifies that his intentions were entirely noble, to come back to the pit and save Joseph. Somehow, 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. Reuben returns to the pit and sees that Joseph is gone. He rends his garments, and desperately cries out that he cannot face his poor father without the lad. The Rabbis say that Reuben was unaware that the brothers had sold Joseph, because he had returned to Hebron to minister to old Jacob, since it was his turn among the brothers, and each one had to go at a particular time. Reuben had good intentions, but his timing was lousy! To go back at that time was just wrong!

Our final encounter with Reuben is at the end of Genesis 42:37. The brothers have returned from their first visit to Egypt. Joseph has accused them of being spies, and Simeon is being held captive. Joseph then forbids the brothers to return to Egypt without their younger brother, Benjamin, in order to prove their innocence. Reuben once again makes a magnanimous offer. He says to his father, Jacob, ” et shnay banai tamit,” you can kill my two sons, if I don’t bring Benjamin back, “tnah otto al yadi,” give him to me, “v’anee ashivenu aylecha,” I promise to bring him back. Jacob rejects the offer. It’s interesting how Rashi describes this rejection. He says, that old Jacob, says to Reuben: “b’chor shoteh!” You may be the oldest, but you’re a fool! Are you kidding? 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 in the text, Judah makes a similar offer, in fact, less magnanimous, which is accepted. Judah says: Send the lad with me, and we will arise and go, so that both we and our children will not die. “Anochee e’eravenu,” I will be surety for him, “mi’yadee t’vachshenu,” 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. Reuben had said you can kill my sons. All Judah said was that he would be responsible, and yet Judah’s offer was accepted–because it’s all in the timing. Judah’s offer was made after the food was completely depleted, and the children were crying–the situation was desperate. Reuben’s offer was made right 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 repeated frequently in Jewish tradition. In Pirkei Avot (“Ethics of the Fathers”) there are three germane statements. It states, for instance, ” al tirazeh et chavercha bisha’at ka’aso,” don’t try to calm a person down at the moment of his great anger. “Al t’nachamenu bisha’at she’may’to mutal l’fanav,” don’t try to console a friend when the body of the deceased is not yet cold, when the dead is still in front of him. And finally it says, “al tomar davar sh’ee efshar lish’moah,” try not to say something that people cannot understand, even though eventually they will be understood. Timing is critical!

I found an essay written by Charles Swindoll that I’d like to cite in closing. He writes as follows: “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 intended attitudes. And so we learn from Reuben, not only to say the right thing, but to say the right thing at the right time.

May you be blessed.