“How Important is Timing?”
(updated and revised from Vayechi 5763-2002)

by, Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Vayechi, contains a series of exalted poetic verses known as “Birkot Yaakov,” Jacob’s blessings of his children.

Birkot Yaakov are much more than a mere collection of blessings. These verses, in fact, designate the unique missions that each of the 12 tribes of Israel are destined to fulfill in the future. In these beautiful poetic expressions, Jacob also, in effect, chooses Joseph as his first born, to receive a double inheritance. He also designates Judah as the tribe that will serve as the temporal leaders and the future kings of Israel.

Birkot Yaakov also reveal that, of all the sons of Jacob, perhaps Reuben, the eldest, is the most tragic. The initial words of Jacob’s tribute to Reuben, which overflow with emotion, are extremely moving. In Genesis 49:3, Jacob says, רְאוּבֵן, בְּכֹרִי אַתָּה, , “Reuben, you are my first born,” כֹּחִי וְרֵאשִׁית אוֹנִי, “You are the first of my strength and the first of my power,” יֶתֶר שְׂאֵת, וְיֶתֶר עָז, “you are foremost in rank, and foremost in power.” You Reuben, says Jacob, have all the natural advantages.

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

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

When we first encounter Reuben as an adult, it is during the season of the wheat harvest. Scripture, in Genesis 30:14, records, וַיִּמְצָא דוּדָאִים בַּשָּׂדֶה, Reuben finds mandrakes, a fertility drug, in the field and brings them to his mother Leah, so that she could bear more children. How generous. Certainly, these mandrakes are not easy to find. It is the first indication that Reuben, by nature, is a kind person who will always be there for others, trying to be helpful.

The next time we encounter Reuben in scripture, things have taken a turn for the worse. The Torah relates, in Genesis 35:22, וַיֵּלֶךְ רְאוּבֵן, וַיִּשְׁכַּב אֶת בִּלְהָה פִּילֶגֶשׁ אָבִיו, and Reuben went and slept with Bilha, his father’s concubine. Our rabbis relate that even in this instance, Reuben’s intentions were entirely noble. They explain that Rachel, Jacob’s beloved wife, had died. The brokenhearted Jacob moves his bed into Bilha’s tent, because as Rachel’s handmaiden, Bilha, is the closest that he could get to his beloved Rachel. Reuben considered this an affront to his mother Leah, and took upon himself to move Jacob’s bed into his mother Leah’s tent. Although Reuben did nothing more than tamper with his father’s bed, Jacob considers it as if Reuben had violated the sanctity of his marriage, and consequently in his valedictory, Jacob takes Reuben severely to task.

In Genesis 37, we, once again, encounter Reuben performing a virtuous act. Joseph’s dreams, that his brothers would bow down to him, have caused great resentment among the brothers. When Joseph arrives in Dothan seeking his brothers, he is dressed in his multi-colored coat of colors, which his brothers abhor. The hatred for Joseph is so intense, that all the brothers conspire to murder him. Reuben is taken aback by his brothers’ evil intentions, and tries to dissuade them of their perfidious plans. In order to save Joseph, he says Genesis 37:21, לֹא נַכֶּנּוּ נָפֶש, “Let us not commit murder. After all, how could we kill our brother?” He suggests instead that they throw Joseph into a pit. Scripture actually testifies that Reuben, in fact, intended to come back to the pit and save Joseph. The plans, however, go awry. Apparently, without Reuben’s knowledge, Joseph is sold to a caravan of Ishmaelites and Midianites who are on their way to Egypt. When Reuben returns to the pit and discovers that Joseph is missing, he rends his garments, and desperately cries out that without the lad he will be unable to face his poor father. The rabbis say that the reason that Reuben was unaware that the brothers had sold Joseph was because he had left them temporarily to minister to old Jacob back in Hebron. Reuben has good intentions, but his timing is atrocious!

Our final encounter with Reuben is found at the end of Genesis 42. The brothers have returned from their first visit to Egypt. Joseph has accused them of being spies, and has imprisoned Simeon. In order to prove their innocence, Joseph has forbidden the brothers to return to Egypt without bringing their younger brother, Benjamin. In this desperate situation, Reuben steps forward and makes a magnanimous offers to his father, Jacob: Genesis 42:37, אֶת שְׁנֵי בָנַי תָּמִית,  “You may kill my two sons, if I don’t bring Benjamin back!” תְּנָה אֹתוֹ עַל יָדִי, , “Give him to me,” וַאֲנִי אֲשִׁיבֶנּוּ אֵלֶיךָ, ,“I promise to bring him back!”

Jacob rejects Reuben’s offer. In fact, Rashi describes the rejection as a brutal rebuff. Rashi states that old Jacob speaks seethingly to his firstborn Reuben: בְּכוֹר שׁוֹטֶה, ! “You may be the oldest, but you are a fool! Are you kidding? How do I gain by having my two grandchildren killed if you don’t return with Benjamin. What kind of inane offer are you suggesting?”

And yet, a few verses later, Judah makes a similar offer, indeed a far less magnanimous one, which is accepted. Judah says, Genesis 43:8-9: “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!”

Although Reuben had said, “You can kill my sons!” all Judah stated was that he would be responsible. Yet, it was Judah’s offer that was accepted–because it’s all in the timing. Judah’s offer, was made after all the food was depleted–the children were crying and the situation was desperate. Reuben’s offer was made immediately after the brothers had returned to Canaan from Egypt–their donkeys laden with food. One might have the best intentions, but if the timing is off, the offer may very well be ineffective.

This emphasis on timing is found frequently in Jewish sources. In “Pirkei Avot,” Ethics of the Fathers (4:23) there are a number of germane references. אַל תְּרַצֶּה אֶת חֲבֵרְךָ בִשְׁעַת כַּעֲסוֹ, Do not try to placate a person during the moment of his great anger. וְאַל תְּנַחֲמֶנּוּ בְּשָׁעָה שֶׁמֵּתוֹ מֻטָּל לְפָנָיו, Do not attempt to console a friend when the body of the deceased is not yet buried. And, finally, (2:5), אַל תֹּאמַר דָּבָר שֶׁאִי אֶפְשָׁר לִשְׁמֹעַ, שֶׁסּוֹפוֹ לְהִשָּׁמַע, Try not to say something that people cannot understand, even though eventually it will be understood. Timing is critical!

Timing can validate, or invalidate, even the most vaunted and best of intentions.

And so, dear friends, take heed, and let us learn from Reuben–not only to say the right thing, but to say the right thing at the proper time.

May you be blessed.

Please note: The Fast of the 10th of Tevet will be observed this year on Tuesday, January 3, 2022, 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.