Living On The Edge

Nov 10th, 2010 by Rabbi Simcha Weinberg in Portion of the Week
Standing on the corner of 95th and Broadway, I had a perfect opportunity to observe peoples’ faces. I love the fact that New York provides a glimpse of people from all over the world. I tried counting how many different countries were represented by the people climbing up from the subway, when I noticed that no matter where these people came from, they had assumed the New York Face: no one was smiling. People didn’t look happy.

I stopped counting countries to begin counting smiles. The only people smiling or laughing were children. There were smiles of pure joy. There were smiles of satisfaction. I saw guffaws, belly laughs, giggles, and chuckles. The kids were the only ones who looked human.

Just as I began laughing with joy at the sight, I saw a mirror of my past when two parents were struggling with a screaming child. The children may be the only ones laughing, but they certainly were the only people having tantrums. No wonder so many people choose to stop laughing: Raw emotions come at a price. When we feel free enough to wholeheartedly express our joy, we usually have to deal with raw sadness and anger. To live with the freedom to laugh with such abandon, we must live on the edge, right where all our emotions bubble and pop, laughter and anger, happiness and sadness. I guess most New Yorkers already feel that they live on the edge, and smother their smiles to prevent themselves from venting their fury.

Reuben, the Bechor – First Born – of Jacob and Leah, lived on the edge. The Talmud (Bava Batra 126b) teaches us that a Bechor has special gifts: There was once a certain man who came before Rabbi Chaninah and said to the Sage, “I am convinced regarding this individual that he is the firstborn of his father.” Rabbi Chaninah said to him, “From where do you know this?”

The witness said to him in reply, “Because when people would come to the son’s father with eye ailments, he would tell them: ‘Go to my son Shichas for he is a firstborn son, and his saliva can heal eye ailments.’”

Rabbi Chaninah accepted this proof, and awarded the son in question a double portion of his father’s property.

Firstborns have great power, but they are also susceptible to stealing, hatred and resentment. (Yalkut Shimoni, Vayechi #157)

Reuben lived this conflict: He moved Jacob’s bed to prevent him from fathering more children and further diluting Reuben’s inheritance. (Ramban, Genesis 35:22) He liked money.

Yet, he also was careful not to steal, “he went during the harvest and found mandrakes growing wildly in a field,” he would not take anything from another’s property. He would only collect wild flowers for his mother. The Alshich says that Reuben intended the flowers to help Leah attract her husband and bear more children!

Reuben was impetuous (Genesis 49:3-4), enough for Jacob to fear that if rebuked by his father, he would turn away from Jacob and join Eisav! (Rashi, Deuteronomy 1:3) Reuben impetuously moved his bed directly in front of Bilhah’s tent to make his father uncomfortable (Ha’amek Davar) and yet he planned to repair his sin by saving Joseph.

Reuben lived on the edge of greatness and terrible evil. Yet, he did not assume the New York face; he thrived where he was, learning to derive greatness from his challenge.

How would Reuben look as he came up from the subway? He would either be laughing or screaming, but he would certainly never be neutral.

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