Parashat Vayesheb- How Many Bosses Do We Want?
Parashat Vayesheb tells the story of Mechirat Yosef, the sale of Yosef into slavery by his brothers. Initially, the brothers planned to kill Yosef, but Reuben, the oldest brother, persuaded them to instead throw him into a pit and thus leave his fate in God’s hands, rather than kill him directly. Reuben’s intent was to later lift Yosef out of the pit and return him home safely, but instead of frontally opposing his brothers’ scheme, he chose to devise this scheme of convincing them to throw Yosef into the pit. (Ultimately, of course, Yosef was sold as a slave when Reuben was not present.)
The Midrash makes a perplexing comment regarding this episode. It says that if Reuben had known that the Torah would record this incident, then he would have proudly lifted Yosef on his shoulders and paraded him home in full view of the brothers. Rather than devising a covert plan to rescue his brother, Reuben would have openly lifted Yosef and brought him home – had he only known that his heroism would be made public for posterity in the Torah.
At first glance, the Midrash seems to be saying that Reuben would have done a better job if he had known about the publicity he would receive. Is this possible? Can we imagine Reuben, one of the righteous sons of Yaakob, being obsessed with fame and public recognition?
Remarkably, the Midrash does not stop there, and instead goes on to make similar comments about two other legendary Sadikim. First, it speaks of Aharon, who went to greet his brother, Moshe, when Moshe arrived in Egypt at God’s behest to deliver Beneh Yisrael from bondage. The Torah (Shemot 4:27) tells that Aharon warmly bowed and kissed his brother to congratulate him on his appointment as the nation’s leader. The Midrash comments that Aharon would have done even more if he had known that this event would be recorded in the Torah. Rather than just greeting his brother, he would have made an elaborate procession with music and fanfare.
The third Biblical figure of whom the Midrash speaks in this context is Boaz, the wealthy landowner, who gave Rut – a destitute convert and newcomer – some food to eat. The Midrash writes that if Boaz had realized that this Misva was being recorded for posterity, he would have served Rut a full course meat meal.
In all three instances, the Midrash appears to accuse these great Sadikim of underachieving because they did not anticipate the publicity they would receive. How can we understand these baffling comments?
The common denominator between all three situations described by the Midrash is the concern of how other people would respond to the good deed in question. Reuben, of course, feared that he would meet with stern opposition from his brothers if he openly tried to rescue Yosef. In Aharon’s case, it was very uncertain how Beneh Yisrael would react to Moshe’s sudden arrival and announcement that he is the redeemer. Many people may have resented Moshe’s sudden rise to leadership after being away from Egypt for so long. Aharon’s decision to warmly embrace Moshe and celebrate his return to Egypt as national leader was not necessarily the popular move. And Boaz understandably had reason to hesitate before making special gestures to a young woman who suddenly arrived in Bet Lehem, which would likely trigger all kinds of rumors and speculation.
The Midrash seeks to alert us to the dangers of cynical peers who are all too eager to dissuade us from doing the right thing. These three Sadikim all did the right thing, but in the absence of pressures from their peers, they would have acted with more fervor and gusto, without any ambivalence. The threat of opposition, of whatever kind, resulted in a more subdued performance of the Misva. But if they had contemplated that these events were being recorded by God in the Scriptures, that they had received God’s explicit and public "endorsement," they would have acted with more vigor and confidence.
This is an important reminder for those of us who occasionally feel self-conscious around peers who do not necessarily approve of or respect our Torah observance. It is natural to feel intimidated and subdued around people who look disdainfully at our Misva observance and are likely to make snide remarks. But we must remember that the Misva acts we perform have God’s official endorsement. If God approves, does it really matter what the people around us think? Should we care that they poke fun at us if God Himself admires us for what we do?
A person who concerns himself only with how God thinks of him has only one "boss"; there is only one Being whose wishes he needs to satisfy. But those who fret about what the people around them think have dozens, or perhaps hundreds or even thousands, of "bosses." Such people have to answer to everyone; they bear the burden of trying to make everyone happy – a burden which nobody can bear without collapsing under the pressure at one point or another.
Let us, then, focus our attention on what God wants, and not on what everyone else wants. This perspective will give us the freedom to pursue our spiritual goals unencumbered by the pressure of our peers, and free from the wishes and demands of everyone around us, which oftentimes conflict with the wishes and demands of the Almighty.