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Before We Act

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

“Reuven, you are my firstborn, my strength and the first of my might. Superior in rank and superior in power. The restlessness of water, you shall not have superiority, for you ascended upon your father’s couch; then you profaned my bed.” (Genesis 49, 3-4)

After Rachel passed away, Yaakov moved his bed into Rachel’s maidservant’s tent. This angered Reuven who felt that his mother, Leah, was insulted by Yaakov’s actions. Reuven then moved Yaakov’s bed into Leah’s tent. In the verses above, Yaakov explains to his son Reuven that although he was the natural choice to lead his brothers, he acted impetuously out of anger and, therefore, has lost his leadership (birthright) responsibilities and benefits.

Like water hurrying down a stream, Reuven hurried to act out of anger. Since leadership requires that a person have the ability to restrain him or herself from acting irrationally based on strong emotions, Reuven’s actions disqualify him from leadership. A leader must have the wisdom, patience, and self-awareness to know when emotions are running high and must ensure that action is only taken with a calm and balanced mind. Had Reuven delayed his actions and calmed his mind down, he may have thought of other possibilities. Perhaps he would have realized that his father had spiritual calculations of which he was not aware. Perhaps he could have approached his father and explained his feelings and his father would have put his mind at ease.

The Torah makes us aware of the importance of ensuring that we refrain from taking any action or arriving at any conclusion when we are not of a calm and balanced mind. This requires the qualities of awareness and patience. Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz points out that when we lose our peace of mind and are overcome with emotion, we can drop many spiritual levels in an instant. The sin of the golden calf is a typical example of this. Moses did not descend from Mt. Sinai when the nation expected him to do so, which led the nation to panic and build the golden calf. Personal and mass hysteria are incredibly dangerous. Had the Jewish people had more patience and awareness, and delayed any action until their equanimity (mental calmness and composure) returned, the history of the Jewish people would have been very different.

Let us learn the self-awareness, patience, and control to act and react from a more calm and tranquil place. This will enhance our leadership abilities in our community, family, and personal lives.