When one thinks of a leader, among the qualities that come to mind are a sense of calm confidence. A person who remains unflappable in times of crisis and emergency, one who can analyze the entire situation calmly and thereby exercise good judgment.
This week’s Parsha illustrates an otherwise unfathomably great person, who lacked this quality to some infinitesimal degree, and thereby forfeited the mantle of leadership that would otherwise have been his. In his final words to his sons, Yaakov Avinu describes (Bereishis 49:4) his first born Reuven as a Pachaz KaMayim – one who is impetuous as water (flows erratically). What was the prime example of Reuven’s seeming `impetuous’ nature? The Pasuk continues and tells us “because you mounted your father’s bed.” The Gemara (Shabbos 55b) informs us that rather than an egregious sin as the Pasuk hints at, Reuven’s misdeed was removing Yaakov’s bed from Bilhah’s tent after the death of Rachel, and moving it into his mother Leah’s tent.
Harav Zaman Sorotzkin zt’l, in Oznaim LaTorah provides more detail. Reuven thought he was involved in the virtuous act of standing up to defend his mother’s honor (which he felt had been slighted by Yaakov’s seeming preference for Rachel’s maid servant Bilhah over Leah). Rav Sorotzkin asks an obvious question. Was the great Yaakov Avinu indifferent to the potential embarrassment to Leah? Wouldn’t he be concerned about doing such a thing?
Rav Sorotzkin suggests the following backstory: Yaakov, grieving over the loss of his beloved Rachel needed time to be comforted. Chazal tell us a person usually needs the passage of a year after his wife’s passing until he can remarry. During that temporary span of time Yaakov moved his bed into Bilhah’s, Rachel’s maid servant’s tent, until his grieving for Rachel would naturally begin to lessen. Then he would be ready to move on to a new `main’ wife, Leah.
What was Reuven’s mistake? He was impetuous, not sufficiently taking time to process, neither his thoughts, nor Yaakov’s need for time to mourn. He sized up the situation hastily, and ultimately incorrectly, that Yaakov had slighted Leah’s honor. It was in fact nothing of the sort. Yaakov merely needed time to heal before moving on. It was this lack of calm, reasoned thinking that rendered Reuven unfit for leadership.
We are judging people and situations all the time. Do we make our analyses in a calm frame of mind, or are we seized by emotions, righteous indignation perhaps and render a verdict too quickly? Have we been swept away by the twitter and sound-bite mentality, where patient, deliberate thinking is an endangered species? Do we view a ten second video clip and rush to judgment without knowing the facts? We are all in great peril of making disastrous mistakes for ourselves and others, if we don’t reclaim the ability to think things through carefully and completely.
On what path are we training our children? Do they see parents who give thought to their decisions? Do they hear other people being judged guilty or innocent with only a minimum of thought? Our children are watching and listening and learning. How do we help them sort out their feelings at the end of a long, hard day in school? “My friends are so mean,” “my teacher hates me,” “Yossi threw my lunch on the floor on purpose!” The golden rule is – validate their feelings, and afterwards when they feel understood and calm, help them realize there could be another side to the story, that their interpretations are only one way to see things.
Leadership requires deliberate, analytical thinking. It requires looking at the whole picture. It requires giving the benefit of the doubt. We are all leaders, in our own realm, children included. No one wants to live with the results of hasty, impetuous decisions. Even someone as great as Reuven suffered disastrous consequences that resulted from his hastiness. Let’s help our children and ourselves navigate the way to a healthy, happy productive life through the strength that grows out of calm, deliberate reactions to life’s many curve balls.
Have a calm, wonderful Shabbos,
Rabbi Kalman Baumann”