By Rabbi Binny Freedman

The flaw in the mirror

from the heart of jerusalem


Sometimes it takes someone else to show you what you should have seen all along. I was driving home the other day when suddenly a car sped by on my left, trying to overtake me and the cars ahead.

The only problem was that he had not anticipated a truck coming around the curve, heading straight for him in his lane. There was nowhere for him to go and no space for him to get back into our lane; it was a two-lane highway with only one lane in each direction.

Realizing that I was about to witness a really nasty accident, despite the cars behind me, I braked and threw my car onto the shoulder, allowing him to get back into our lane just in time. The car behind me braked to avoid hitting me, and I managed to stop before hitting the guardrail; by some miracle no one was hurt. And this small white car who had almost gotten himself and probably some of us killed just drove off. 

Normally, that would be the end of the story, but we hit traffic, and I could see him a few cars ahead. Keeping my eyes on him, I managed to pull up alongside him by driving into a turning lane at a traffic light and motioned to him to pull down his window.

At that moment, at a red light, before I had a chance to yell anything, I suddenly realized that the driver was a good friend of mine from the shul I attend every Shabbat! He was obviously embarrassed, realizing full well what a dangerous thing he had just done, so all I did was plead with him: “Please drive slowly; it’s not worth it!” I blew him a kiss and drove off as the light turned green.

Truth be told, it could just have easily have been him driving alongside to tell me to drive more carefully. Do we recognize how ridiculous we can be?

There is a fascinating moment captured, but easily overlooked, by the Midrash in this week’s portion of Vayeshev. Immediately after Yosef is sold to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver (Bereishit 37:28), the Torah tells us that Reuven returned to the pit and discovered that Yosef was gone (ibid. 37:29).

The obvious question is: where did Reuven go? Rashi quotes the Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 84:19) suggesting that Reuven was busy doing penance in sackcloth for having rearranged his father’s bed.

The event Rashi is referring to was his attempt in last week’s portion of Vayishlach to substitute his mother Leah’s bed for Rachel’s concubine Bilha’s, after Rachel had died. He felt he was protecting his mother’s honor. In fact, it is this very event for which Reuven is taken to task by Yaakov on his deathbed (ibid. 49:4).

But one has to wonder: this event took place when Rachel died, just after Binyamin was born; so Yosef was eight years old. Yosef was sold when he was seventeen. Why was Reuven still repenting for this mistake nine years later? What was it about the selling of Yosef that caused Reuven to reconsider his past actions?

It is clear from the context of the verses that Reuven was against the decision to kill, and even to sell Yosef. Rashi suggests it was his intention to save him, which may be why he was so anguished, even tearing his clothes, upon discovering that Yosef was gone.

There is much discussion among the commentaries as to how the brothers could justify selling their own brother into a lifetime of slavery, even wanting to kill him. But to Reuven, perhaps it was a shock to realize how easily one can rationalize fratricide. Seeing the brothers assume they had a right to kill Yosef or at least get rid of him due the fact that they felt threatened by his relationship with their father, perhaps Reuven looked back and suddenly understood how narrow his viewpoint must have been.

On the one hand, with Rachel dead, was it not time for Leah to assume the natural role as Yaakov’s primary wife and share his tent? And Reuven, seeing only his mother’s honor and pain, acted on impulse, viewing the world through his own lens.

But what of Yaakov? Had Reuven considered how painful it must have been for Yaakov to lose his beloved Rachel? And how eerily shocked he must have been to discover his bed moved to the tent of a woman he had not intended to be with? Would this not have reminded Yaakov of the anguish he had felt when tricked by Lavan into marrying Leah against his will in the first place, all those years ago?

Perhaps Reuven, in shock at the turn of events regarding the sudden, violent kidnapping of Yosef, took some time for a long-overdue introspection of his own shortcomings?

All of which suggests a powerful idea. The Baal Shem Tov suggests that when we see someone, for example, violating Shabbat, our first response should not be to scream at them regarding the sanctity of Shabbat. Rather, perhaps G-d wants us first to take a look and see what might be wrong in our own Shabbat.

Imagine a world where we first look to examine our own shortcomings, before rebuking our neighbors. Maybe seeing my neighbor driving unsafely was just as much for me to wonder if I can improve my own driving habits? We are so quick to see everyone else’s flaws; it’s harder to hold the light up to our own. 

Everyone seems to be calling everyone else intolerant these days. Perhaps we all would do well to look at ourselves before throwing stones.

Regular healthy introspection can do wonders to improve relationships. If you see a flaw that really bothers you in someone you love, maybe it is a mirror; maybe that flaw is actually a message to you.

Shabbat Shalom from Jerusalem.