A Reward for Futility by Shaul Yaakov Morrison


Upon learning that his brothers desired to kill Yosef, Reuven decided to save him. He reasoned that he could throw Yosef into a pit and later return to save him. The Pasuk states, “VeHaBor Reik Ein Bo Mayim,” “The pit was empty without water” (BeReishit 37:24).  On this Pasuk, Rashi quotes a Midrash saying that although the pit lacked water, it was teeming with snakes and scorpions. The Gemara (Yevamot 121a) states that if a man is seen alive in a pit with snakes and scorpions and cannot be rescued, his wife is permitted to remarry because he can be assumed as dead, as it is impossible for a person to survive in such a pit.  As such, what was Reuven accomplishing by saving Yosef from one death and condemning him to another?  Shouldn’t Reuven have allowed the brothers to continue their plot to kill Yosef in a less drawn-out, painful manner?  What value exists in attempting to accomplish an action, even if it is also destined to fail?

One possible answer is that Reuven, though almost certain that his efforts were futile, felt a need to try to act to save his brother. Hashem judges people favorably who attempt the impossible, and Reuven was one such person. Many stories are told about people who try to do heroic actions, with little chance of succeeding, yet who succeed anyway because their intentions are pure.

One such story is told about the Nodeh BeYehudah, Rav Yechezkel Landau. For 28 years, he waited to have the privilege to recite Birchat HaChamah, the Sun Blessing, once again. Unfortunately, it was raining all day. Many people stood outside all morning waiting for the sun to break through the clouds, but the rain just came down harder. Finally, everyone except the Nodeh BeYehudah went inside. All of a sudden, the sun broke through the clouds, and he quickly recited Birchat HaChamah. After reciting it, he notified everyone else in the city that they could say the Berachah. Unfortunately, immediately after he recited the Berachah, the clouds blocked the sun and the others were unable to recite the Berachah.  Many people were upset as they had waited for weeks to say the Berachah. Responding to their dismay, the Nodeh BeYehudah replied that he had been waiting 28 years to say the Bracha, and Hashem was rewarding him for his wait.

This extreme determination was also shown by Rabbi and Mrs. Holzberg z”l in India. When they left their comfortable homes to go to India, they knew that their lives would be extremely difficult.  They were, however, very determined to spread Torah to people all over the world. They showed the same determination to a cause as Reuven did. Just like Reuven wanted to save Yosef, even if it meant having a more active role in killing his brother, the Holtzbergs wanted to spread Torah, no matter what personal sacrifice it would take.

One who puts this amount of effort into something is greatly rewarded. All three cases of extreme effort in a Mitzvah resulted in that Mitzvah being performed. Reuven successfully saved his brother, Rav Landau was able to say Birchat HaChamah, and the Holtzbergs spread Torah to millions of people in the world who have heard about their mission and have pledged to accept a greater commitment to Hashem in their memory. May we have the privilege to take our observance of the Mitzvot as seriously as did these three individuals. 

-Adapted from a Dvar Torah by Rabbi Moshe Weinberg

The Bright Side of Things by Arie Schwartz

Yosef’s Great Escape by Chaim Metzger