December 27, 2012
Vayechi: When Great Souls Err
Shortly before his death, Jacob blessed his sons. But some of these blessings were more like reproaches:
“Reuben, you are my firstborn … first in rank and first in power. (But since you were) unstable as water, you will no longer be first, for you moved your father’s beds.” (Gen. 49:3-4)
According to some opinions, Reuben did not actually interfere with his father’s sleeping arrangements. He intended to do so, indignant at what he saw as a slight to his mother’s honor and her place in the household. But at the last minute, Reuben restrained himself.
How did Reuben succeed in overcoming his overwhelming feelings of injustice and dishonor?
Reuben’s Fear of Punishment
One rabbi inferred the method Reuben used to master his anger from the letters of the word PaChaZ (‘unstable’): ‘You reminded yourself (Zacharta) of the punishment for this act; you made yourself intensely ill over it (Chalita); and you avoided sin (Peirashta)” (Shabbat 55).
This explanation is surprising. Was Reuben motivated by the lowest form of yirat shamayim — the fear of punishment ( yirat cheit)? Was this the only way the tzaddik could prevent himself from wrongdoing? Could not such a great individual take advantage of more lofty incentives, utilizing his soul’s natural love and awe of God?
The Achilles’ Heel of Great Souls
Some people are blessed with such pure and noble souls that their characteristics are naturally based on the qualities of virtue and goodness. But even these tzaddikim need to recognize their limitations as fallible human beings. They too can be misguided by delusions. Precisely because they rely so heavily on their innate integrity, they may more easily fall in the trap of making terrible mistakes, inflicting much harm to themselves and the world around them.
Truly great souls will avoid this mistake. They will carefully examine the source of their outrage. Further examination may indeed reveal that their zealous response comes from a real case of injustice. But if there are any doubts about the source for their powerful emotions, they can change their usual approach. Instead of examining the matter in terms of overall ideals and lofty future visions, they can take into account more commonplace moral considerations. Such unpretentious calculations are sometimes more effective than nobler considerations.
Reuben reminded himself of the penalty for disrupting the delicate balance in the family and usurping his father’s position. The simple reminder of the personal price to be paid helped Reuben clear his mind and thoughts. He was then able to analyze more accurately his true motivations and arrive at the correct ethical decision.
The resulting inner turmoil was tremendous. Reuben was accustomed to following the dictates of his innate integrity. The conflict between his sense of injustice and his realization as to the correct response was so great that he felt ill — emotionally and physically. “You made yourself intensely ill over it.”
This too is spiritual greatness: to be able to acquiesce before ethical imperatives. Truly great individuals are able, like Reuben, to rein in all of the soul’s powers when necessary. They recognize the absolute justice of the Eternal Judge, before Whom there are no excuses and no exceptions. Even if entire world — your entire inner world — tells you that you are righteous, still consider yourself guilty (See Nidah 30b).
Great good can come from recalling the punishment for sin, even if this motivation may appear petty and beneath one’s spiritual stature. This simple reminder can go beyond all the sophisticated calculations — calculations which can mislead even great souls. In this fashion, Reuben succeeded in avoiding sin, and retained his purity and spiritual powers.
Adapted from EIn Eyah Volume 4 page 48-49