In this week’s Parsha, Parshat Vayeshev, the Torah tells us of the sale of Yosef. Chazal tell us that when the brothers saw Yosef approaching, they organized a Bait Din and decided that Yosef was a Rodef, one who endangered lives, and they therefore determined that Yosef should be killed.
The Pesukim (37:21-22) continue, “And Reuven heard and he saved him from their hands and he said, ‘Let us not smite him mortally… throw him into this pit… but do not send forth your hand against him,’ in order that he [Reuven] might save him and return him to his father.” Reuven’s plan fell through when he returned to the pit and Yosef was not there, as he was sold soon before.
There is a Midrash that comments on the Pasuk in Shir Hashirim (7:14), “The Dudaim yield fragrance, and at our doorsteps are all precious fruits, both new and old, I have stored away for you, my Beloved.” The Midrash states that the expression “The Dudaim yield fragrance” refers to Reuven, who tried to save Yosef from the pit, and the expression “at our doorsteps are all precious fruits” refers to Nerot Chanukah. In other words, Reuven’s act is equated with a pleasant smelling flower and the Nerot Chanukah are equated with delicious fruits.
The commentaries attempt to explain this Midrash. I found a beautiful interpretation of this Midrash by Rav Schwab zt”l. What is the difference, he asks, between pleasant smelling flowers and delicious tasting fruit? The answer is that a flower may have a beautiful smelling aroma, but it does not leave one with anything lasting or permanent. One smells it, enjoys it, and then it is gone. Eating fruit, on the other hand, provides a much more substantial and lasting pleasure. One eats it, tastes it, derives nourishment and sustenance with it, and it eliminates one’s hunger.
This is the message that the Midrash seeks to convey, that what Reuven did is like the sweet smelling flower. He had noble intentions and he wanted to do the right thing, but unfortunately he stopped short. What was required was to stand up and take firm action and to directly tell his brothers, “We absolutely cannot do this!” But he did not have the moral power necessary to stand up firmly for what is right. Therefore, his act remains only like a flower that provides a fleeting pleasant smell with no lasting benefit.
However, when people are able to be Moser Nefesh, risk their lives, those acts bear lasting fruit. That is what happened at Chanukah time, a small band of people had the strong moral fortitude, strength, and Mesirat Nefesh necessary to stand up against overwhelming odds. The result of that Mesirat Nefesh was, like fruits on our doorsteps, something everlasting: a rebirth and a renewal of the service in the Temple that saved the Jewish people.
Rav Tzadok offers a beautiful insight into the Macabee’s Mesirat Nefesh. He instructs us to examine the names of the heroes of the Chanukah story: Yochanan and Matityahu. Yochanan means Kah Chanan, Hashem gave a present. Matityahu means Matat Kah, A gift of Hashem. Only the people who realize that all their strengths, their talents, and their material possessions are merely gifts of Hashem can rise to the occasion and be Moser Nefesh. Such people realize that all they have are merely Matat Kah that must be used for His service. Such recognition generates the Mesirat Nefesh necessary for producing lasting fruit as opposed to fleeting smells.
Adapted from a Dvar Torah given by Rabbi Yissocher Frand, from http://home.att.net/~tzuriel/vayeishev5759.html