Parshas Vayaishev (5777)
"And Reuven heard and he saved him from their hands" (Genesis 37:21).
The Midrash makes the following amazing statement about Reuven's efforts to save his brother Joseph from the hands of his brothers who were trying to kill him. It says that if Reuven would have known that his heroic effort to save Joseph would be recorded for posterity in the all-time best-selling book in history - the Bible - he would have picked Joseph up on his shoulders with great zeal and immediately brought him back to Jacob.
The Midrash is very difficult to understand. It seems to imply that Reuven was on an ego trip, and that he wouldn't overextend himself to save his own brother from grave danger unless he knew that doing so would catapult him to instant stardom - full page coverage in the Torah! Surely Reuven, one of the great Twelve Tribes of Israel, was motivated by greater ideals than just fame and fortune. What then is the Midrash trying to tell us?
I remember many years ago in elementary school in Queens, New York, a certain classmate of mine whom all the teachers and kids had written off as a future nobody - the kind of kid you would vote most likely to become a high school dropout; and that's exactly what the kid would've become, had it not been for the words of one Rabbi. This Rabbi once complimented the kid for some insignificant thing that he had done, and told the boy how special he was. Years later that boy grew up, married, raised a family and became a very successful businessman who is well respected in the community in which he lives. And he attributes his amazing turnaround to that one kind word that some grade-four Rabbi made to him way back when.
Now I ask you … if that Rabbi would have known then the tremendous impact his few words (to which he probably didn't attach too much importance) would have on this little boy so many years later, don't you think he would have said and done that much more with the kid and with every other person with whom he came in contact?
This, I believe, is what the Midrash is teaching us. If Reuven would realize that his actions would be recorded eternally in the Torah; in other words, that his seemingly insignificant actions can have cosmic consequences, it would radically affect the way he acts right now.
If we, too, would realize that every act, every word, that we do or say has the potential to change other people's lives (and, consequently, the lives of their friends, their children and grandchildren etc. etc.) in a dramatic way, we would be so much more careful in choosing our actions and words.
One encouraging word to a discouraged, frustrated child can literally change his or her life. And, conversely, one nasty word to a spouse, one put-down said in anger, one off-the-cuff comment from a teacher to a student can sometimes have devastatingly deadly, long-term effects.
The Talmud teaches us that if you have saved even one life it is as if you have saved the whole world. The reason for this is because inside each and every one of us lies the potential to create and to positively impact upon everyone in the world - be it ourselves, our immediate families, our communities and even future generations. We must try to remember the next time we're about to say something to a friend even in harmless, casual conversation, that what we say can and quite possibly will change his or her life forever. That's an awesome power and a great responsibility as well!