“Reuven, you are my firstborn, my strength and the first of my might…you shall not have superiority for you ascended upon your father’s couch, then you profaned Him… (Bereishis 49:3-4).
Before Yaakov Avinu passed on, he gathered his children together, blessed them, and also criticized them. His words to Reuven, the oldest of the shevatim, were especially harsh.
Rashi writes that Reuven was qualified to be superior to his brothers in rank (with the kehunah) and in power (with kingship), but he lost these privileges. The kehunah was given to Levi, the kingship was given to Yehuda, and the birthright was given to Yosef.
What was Reuven’s infraction? One of the suggestions in the Talmud (Shabbos 55b) is that Reuven took Yaakov’s bed from the tent of Bilhah and placed it in the tent of Leah because he wanted to protect the honor of his mother. A cursory reading of the Torah suggests that Reuven sinned, but the Talmud maintains that whoever says Reuven sinned is mistaken.
Our sages tell us that Hashem is more exacting in judgment with tzaddikim – to the point of even a hairsbreadth. That is to say, when a tzaddik makes the slightest misstep, it’s considered an egregious transgression even though it wouldn’t be considered an aveirah for others.
To understand why, imagine the difference between a scratch on a diamond and one on a piece of scrap metal. Obviously, the slightest blemish on a diamond will greatly diminish its value. Righteous men and women are like diamonds. When stones are first mined, they are all ordinary. After they’re cleaned and polished, some are perfect with no flaws, and those are the precious gems. Tzaddikim are refined and purified individuals who are the foundation of the world (Mishlei 10:25). Accordingly, tzaddikim in particular must remain unblemished because any minor imperfection will affect the spiritual status of the entire community.
Rav Avigdor Nebenzahl refers to Bereishis 15:5 – when Hashem told Avraham Avinu, “Look towards the heavens and count the stars if you are able to count them” – and notes that every member of the Jewish nation can be a star. We are like stars, but we cannot always perceive the greatness that lies within the soul. Every act that a person does – whether he is great or small – makes an impact on the world, whether good or otherwise.
Rav Nebenzahl directs us to Avraham Avinu’s act of hachnasas orchim on the third day after his bris milah. The heat was oppressive, and Avraham, at the age of 99, stood outside to welcome his guests. Our sages tell us that everything he did himself, Hashem personally did for his children. Whatever was executed by someone else, Hashem too performed through an agent.
Avraham Avinu directed (Bereishis 18:4), “Let some water be brought,” and therefore Hashem appointed Moshe Rabbeinu to get water from a rock. This mission resulted in the sin of Mei Merivah and it was decreed that he would not enter Eretz Yisrael. If Moshe would have come into Eretz Yisrael, he would have built the final Beis HaMikdash which will never be destroyed.
Since he didn’t enter Eretz Yisrael, the holiness of the land was not protected and the Beis HaMikdash was destroyed and we’ve experienced 2,000 years of exile and tzarros. That’s the significance of one act, whose ramifications and consequences one must seriously consider.
The Toliner Rebbe related that, in 1921, at the young age of 14, his grandfather desired to travel to Eretz Yisrael to learn Torah. His parents agreed, and he boarded a ship from New York to Alexandria, eventually arriving in Yerushalayim.
In the dining room aboard the ship, the young boy ate the meals wearing his long coat and hat, as was his family custom. Noting this, an anti-Semite approached and said, “When we sit among others, we do not wear a hat.” With that, he took off the boy’s hat and threw it on the ground. The boy rose from his chair and, without saying a word, picked up his hat and put it back on his head.
Enraged by the boy’s chutzpah, the non-Jew knocked his hat off again.
“Why don’t you start up with someone your own age?” the boy responded.
Everybody sitting in the dining room began to laugh, and the man’s face reddened with shame. He was more incensed than ever. “If you put that hat on again,” he shouted, “I will break all your teeth with my fist.”
The boy was unmoved and courageously retorted, “It is possible that not one tooth will remain in my mouth, but you will not remove this hat from my head.”
By this time, others in the room had risen to the defense of the boy. A less traditional Jew physically restrained the anti-Semite from any further action, and then informed the captain of the ship what had transpired. The captain had been recompensed by the parents to look after the boy on the voyage, so there was no recurrence of this incident.
When the person who had rescued the boy returned home, he told the Strettiner Rebbe of the self-sacrifice of this Jewish boy. The Strettiner Rebbe was very impressed and remarked that he would like to have such a young man for his daughter Perel. Indeed, three years later when the boy returned to America, the Strettiner Rebbe sent a special messenger to his parents inquiring whether they would consider a shidduch with his daughter.
The Toliner Rebbe concluded his story, “Here I stand before you, the grandson of this shidduch.”