Rabbi Yakov Haber
The Methodology of Kindness
"And Reuvein said: may you kill my two sons if I will not bring him [Binyamin] to you; place him under my protection, and I will return him to you" (Mikeitz 42:37). With these words, Reuvein, Ya'akov Avinu's oldest son, solemnly pledged to safely bring Binyamin down to Egypt to the mysteriously demanding "lord of the land" and, through this, return Shimon who had been previously thrown in prison in Egypt. Ya'akov refuses Reuvein's request without directly addressing his offer. Yehuda, by contrast, offers a basically similar pledge: "Send the lad with me...and we shall live and not die: we, you and our children. I will pledge for him [e'ervenu]; you may demand him of me; if I do not bring him and present him before you, I will have eternally sinned to you" (Mikeitz 43:8-9). To his request, Ya'akov's accedes.
In attempting to explain the reason Ya'akov Avinu only agreed to Yehuda's proposal to return Binyamin and not to Reuvein's, the commentaries offer multiple approaches. Rashi, quoting from the Midrash, states that Reuvein's request was inappropriate. Ya'akov too would feel the pain of the loss of Reuvein's children; Yehuda, by contrast, took personal responsibility. Ramban and others note that even Reuvein's request did not literally mean that Ya'akov should kill his own grandchildren, but rather Reuvein indicated such utter commitment to returning Ya'akov's child -- Binyamin -- safely, that, if he did not, he was willing to suffer the double pain of the loss of not one but two of his own children. (See Rav Kasher's Torah Sh'leima where he compares this to similar emphatic statements in the Talmud: "akapei'ach es banai".) Nonetheless, Ya'akov did not trust Reuvein's promise, only Yehuda's, either because Yehuda was stronger than Reuvein and would be more capable of rescuing Binyamin if necessary or because Reuvein had previously sinned against his father causing Reuvein to lose Ya'akov's trust. Rashi later (43:2) adds from the Midrash that Yehuda's strategy was to wait until no food was left in the house. Necessity would impel Ya'akov to consent to Yehuda's request to entrust Binyamin with him. Reuvein's request, by contrast, was offered while there was still food available from their first journey to Egypt. Ohr HaChaim suggests that it was Yehuda's willingness to forfeit his Olam HaBa, his eternal afterlife, and not just undergo suffering in this world, that caused Ya'akov to consent to his request. Another approach is offered by other commentaries. Yehuda, unlike Reuvein, had already suffered the loss of two children, Eir and Onan (VaYeishev 38:6,10). Ya'akov consented to entrust his son only with one who had already experienced the intense pain of losing a child. However well meaning Reuvein's pledge was, his commitment to return Binyamin safely would surely not match the intensity of the promise of Yehuda.
What emerges from these varied approaches are some very powerful techniques in helping others. The Torah demands and expects of us: "V'Ahavta l'reiacha kamocha" -- to love our fellow as ourselves. This passage serves as the source for the whole range of mitzvos included in g'milus chassadim, acts of kindness (see Rambam, Hilchos ‘Aveilus 14:1). Methods as to how we can best accomplish this mitzva in an effective, empathetic fashion can be learned from this episode in our parsha. By demonstrating to someone in need that we are willing to take personal responsibility or at least a personal interest in alleviating their suffering -- as Yehuda did, in and of itself can help lessen their suffering. By indicating to one who needs our help that we too have undergone a similar situation and totally understand their predicament -- as Yehuda implied, we can be more effective in expressing empathy. Even if we have not experienced a similar situation, we should at least attempt to place ourselves mentally in the situation of the other person so that we can best assist him. A story is told of a Rav who was collecting for the poor in middle of the winter. Upon arriving at the home of a wealthy prospective donor, the Rav insisted that he speak to him at the open door. After a while, the donor requested that the Rav should enter the warm house since it was freezing outside. To this the Rav replied, "Now you know how the poor feel! I am sure your donation will be much greater now!" (See also Mishpatim (22:24) "es he'ani imach"- "[give charity] to the poor among you" on which the Midrash comments that when we give charity, we should view ourselves as the poor man.) And, especially in an educational or parenting setting, by waiting for the student or child to realize the necessity of a particular course of action himself and only then responding with our offer of assistance - as Yehuda did, we can often accomplish so much more than just through attempted coercion.
One of the many messages of the miracles of Chanuka is not only the need for intense appreciation and thanksgiving to HaKadosh Baruch Hu that the rabbim (the many) were given over in the hands of the m'atim (the few) -- as we state in the ‘Al HaNissim prayer -- but also the fact that there were m'atim who were willing to stand up the mighty Syrian-Greek armies with m'sirus nefesh. May we also merit fulfilling our obligations toward loving our fellow Jews with the appropriate wisdom and methodology which we can learn from our Torah with a high degree of m'sirus nefesh, in a wholehearted fashion.