Shmuel Fixler A”H, a wonderful Jew who lived in Buffalo, NY, when I served as Rabbi there, once taught me a valuable lesson.
Reb Shmuel was a Holocaust survivor. He had been through Hell, and the Nazis not only murdered most of his family, they also killed his patience. Once after Morning Services I was studying with someone at the back of the Shul. When Mr. Fixler finished rolling up his Tefilin and saying his Tehilim, he headed toward me and called out: “There is a Tahara (a ritual purification of a dead body) at 10 AM. We are one man short! Can you make it?” I started to think. I had never done a Tahara before. The idea of working with a dead body was a bit eerie. I had other important things that I could be busy with … My thoughts were interrupted. “Forget it!” Reb Shmuel said, “if you have to think – the job is not for you!”
I lost a great Mitzvah that morning, but I gained a great insight. “If you have to think – the job is not for you!” I was one minute late.
“Here comes the dreamer.” Yaakov’s son’s saw their brother Yosef from a distance and sat down to convene an emergency session of Bais Din. These brothers, whose names would eventually be inscribed on the breastplate of the Kohain Gadol, put Yosef on trial. Their verdict: the death penalty. “We will kill him and throw him into one of the pits; and we will say a wild beast devoured him.”
The decision was unanimous, yet Reuven was uncomfortable. Reuven stood up and said, “Not so fast, let us not shed blood. Let’s throw him into this pit and lay no hand on him!”
Reuven left the scene and Yehudah took over. Yehudah exercised the majesty and courage of a lion: “Gur Aryeh Yehudah.” Instead of being pulled down by the power of the crowd, he brought his brothers up. “Reuven is right,” he said, “let’s not kill our brother and let’s not leave him in the pit to die; instead, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites. Let our hand not be upon him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.” Although there was a legal verdict that condemned Yosef to death, there was another legal verdict which said that he is our brother. Yehudah, the future king of Israel, did not lose sight of the bigger reality. “He is our flesh, he is our brother – we can’t kill him!” The brothers listened.
Reuven came back. Unaware of the latest meeting and developments, he headed straight for the pit. He needed some time to think and was now determined to rescue his brother, hug him and carry him home to his father on his shoulders. He leaned over the pit and called his brother’s name – but the only response he heard was his own deafening echo. He lowered a rope but it remained weightless. He screamed “Yosef! Yosef!” and the silent response tore through his soul.
With shaking hands Reuven tied the rope to a tree stump and climbed down into the pit. He checked every crevice, every nook and cranny. Where was his brother?! All he could see was his father’s face when he would learn that Yosef had died. With his last bit of strength he climbed out of the pit and with one of the greatest sighs in human history he screamed out, “Behold, Yosef is not in the pit!” (Medrash)
Reuven was one minute late.
Everything worked out pretty well, at least in the short term – Yosef’s rise to power in Egypt, and the families ‘ escape there from famine. Yet, if Reuven had rescued his brother and taken him home, all of Jewish history would have taken a radically different turn.
One thing led to another. For two hundred years we became tortured slaves in Egypt. And for one hundred and fifty years the Romans tormented us during their occupation of Jerusalem. We suffered the brutal murder of ten of the greatest Jewish teachers in history, and we experienced the destruction of the Second Temple, all because of “hatred between the brothers”, a replay of the brothers’ behavior.
None of this would have happened if Reuven had come one minute earlier. Yosef would have been rescued and the story would have been over.
But Reuven was one minute late. He knew what was right, but needed to think. What was there to think about? He should have picked Yosef up and run with him.
The story of Reuven is sad but real. How many times do we come back to the pit screaming “Yosef! Yosef!” – only to find that we waited too long? There are times to deliberate, but there are times when hesitation is a sin. If you know it’s right, just do it!