The Torah openly tells us that Yosef’s brothers were jealous of him and hated him (37:4, 5, 8, 11). Ultimately, they wanted to kill him and only one single brother, Reuven, had the decency to protest and planned to save him.
The Torah attests that Reuven sincerely planned on saving Yosef (37:21. See also Makos 10a). Indeed, the Midrash explicitly states that the Torah is in fact praising Reuven for his act and further states that had Reuven known that the Torah would praise him, Reuven would have actually saved Yosef with infinitely more enthusiasm and would have even carried Yosef home on his shoulders (Midrash Rabbah, Rus Ch. 5).
Usually, a Midrash comes to provide a novel concept or to bring home an extremely crucial component in serving Hashem. The above Midrash, however, doesn’t seem to be accomplishing either of the two. Why does the Midrash state that had Reuven known that the Torah would praise him for saving Yosef, he would have carried Yosef home on his shoulders? Wouldn’t anyone do something that they knew was right, with more enthusiasm, if they knew that Hashem would praise them in the Torah for doing so? Why is it important for the Midrash to point out this simple fact?
The following, incredible true story (which is detailed in a documentary called “Searching For Sugar Man”) - will help answer our question:
The true story of Sixto (pronounced “six-toe”, a common Spanish name) Rodriguez is one of the greatest stories ever known. You may have not heard of him, but in South Africa, Sixto was the greatest star of all time. In the 1970's, bootleg copies of his album passed from hand to hand in South Africa and spread like wildfire. His songs resonated with the masses and became anthems of the anti-apartheid movement. When an indie record store owner named Stephen Segerman released them commercially, they took off, the first batch quickly selling out 500,000 copies, which in that nation would be comparably much more popular than gentile legends like The Beatles or Elvis Presley. His songs played on virtually every music player in the country.
What about the artist himself? Nobody really knew much about him or his current whereabouts. When people asked about him, most people responded that they heard a rumor, a legend really, that Sixto left this world in a grand manner, lighting himself on fire during his final concert. There were other conflicting rumors of his demise, none of which really had any substance or eye-witnesses.
Years later, in the late 1990's, a curious middle-aged fan decided he would find the truth about the mysterious musician who had captured the hearts and imagination of an entire country, once and for all. After searching and asking virtually everyone he could in South Africa what really happened to Sixto & where he is today, without any results, he decided to study Sixto's lyrics from his album with a proverbial fine comb. He noticed that Sixto mentioned Cass Corridor, which in the 1970's was a very poor neighborhood in Detroit, a few times in his album and so the fan decided to travel to The United States and head to Detroit to continue his journey.
When he got there, he immediately began inquiring, looking for the famous musician - Sixto Rodriguez. After a while, he finally found someone who heard of him. “Sixto? Yeah, I know Sixto". The fan was elated. "You mean you actually know the famous musician, Sixto Rodriguez?! Is he alive???". "Well, I don’t know about famous musician", was the response. "And sure, he's alive. He’s a handyman who lives in the decrepit part of town. Barely has two pennies to rub together. Here, I'll give you his address". The fan was doubtful that the address would really be the place where the legendary celebrity lived. However, with this being his first major lead, he raced to the address with tremendous excitement. When he got to the front door, he realized there must be a mistake. The apartment indeed looked run-down and dilapidated. Not sure what else to do, he decided to knock on the door. A girl answered the door. "Is this where the famous musician, Sixto Rodriguez lives?". "Um, my father's name is Sixto Rodriguez", she slowly responded, looking confused. "But he’s not a singer; he's a handyman”.
The man said that he may know Sixto and asked the daughter if she can please show him a picture, just so that he could be sure. When she complied, the curious fan was delighted to see that the man looked exactly like the picture of the man on the cover of the album, albeit older!
"You don’t understand", the fan tried explaining. "Your father is a music legend with hundreds of thousands of fans!". The daughter didn’t seem to register what he was saying. "Where is your father right now?", he asked. "He will be home soon". The fan decided to wait. When Sixto got home, the ecstatic fan could not contain himself!
"Sixto! Is that you? I Can’t believe I found you! You’re alive!". "Of course I’m alive", responded a confused Sixto. "You don’t understand!", continued the fan. "Everyone said that you committed suicide on stage". "Suicide? No, no. I’m right here. Who is 'everyone'?". "I don’t think you understand, but you’re one of the most famous musicians in the entire South Africa. Everybody’s radios are constantly playing your song! People sing them in the street. You’re a legend there!". "I don’t understand", responded Sixto. "I produced two albums here in Detroit over 20 years ago, but they never took off and barely sold any copies”, Sixto said sadly. “After that dismal failure, I moved on from music and became a handyman".
"Well", responded the elated fan, "whether you realize it or not, you are a legend where I come from. The people of my country would do anything to see you in person. I want to bring you and your family back to South Africa to do a welcome back tour. It will be legendary”. "I don’t even know if I can still play", responded Sixto. After much convincing, Sixto and his family finally reluctantly agreed to fly with the fan to South Africa. When Sixto got off the plane on the tarmac, he and his family were shocked to see the sight of hundreds of thousands of people there to greet him, shouting his name, overcome with excitement that they finally found their music legend!
Sixto completed his welcome back tour, and he is now a world-famous singer, with more fame and fortune than anyone could ever need. Yet, incredibly, for over 20 years he had thought that his album was insignificant and did not not accomplish anything. Little did he even suspect the truth that on the other side of the planet, it had achieved indescribable success!
(This true story is detailed in many places. Feel free to research this incredible historical-event).
The Gemara (Bava Basra 10b) compares the Next World to a “topsy-turvy” world, in the sense that nothing is at is seems; Although we don’t necessarily see the tremendous results of our “small” & seemingly unimportant actions that we do to serve Hashem in This World, there is a reality in Shamayim where every single “small” act is in fact recorded and treasured by Hashem Himself on a special scroll for all eternity (similar to how Reuven’s actions were recorded by Hashem within the Torah), whether we realize its significance or not (See Avos 2:1*).
This truth is illustrated by the above-mentioned Midrash. On a basic level, what Reuven planned on doing did not seem very special in his eyes. He wasn’t blinded by jealousy and hate and therefore he realized that killing his brother was not acceptable. This wasn’t superb righteousness on his part; this was basic morality and decency.
However, by the Midrash pointing out that had Reuven known that the Torah would praise his “basic decency” act, he would have enthusiastically carried Yosef, a 17 year old who needed no assistance walking home, home on his shoulders - it is teaching us one of the most important psychological insights into self-motivation of all time: namely, if man removed himself from the haze of thinking his actions are no big deal, and he indeed knew and took to heart that regardless of how “small” or “basic” of a mitzvah one does, it will earn him eternal praise from Hashem Himself; if he made this reality REAL in his mind, he would perform even “small” or “basic” mitzvos with dramatically more enthusiasm. Nothing is more important than this understanding.
Much more valuable and impressive than hundreds of thousands of fans and dollars, each time one does even a “small” mitzvah, Hashem Himself records and treasures that act for all eternity*.
Everybody wants to re-energize themselves to live a more enthusiastic life and serve Hashem with more engagement.
The Yetzer Hara employs many mind-games to diminish our enthusiasm for mitzvos. However, if one truly takes to heart that each mitzvah is creating the equivalent of eternal fame and fortune in the World to Come - & makes sure not to fall into the same trap, lehavdil, that Sixto did of being oblivious of his accomplishments - who wouldn’t take on mitzvos with a whole new attitude and level of positivity and urgency? Let us all take this Midrash to heart and begin to do so today.
*- R’ Avigdor Miller states: “3 parshiyos are taken up by the story of Yosef…The Torah is telling [us] that the story of a man’s life is a Torah. (Not only Yosef’s; it’s given as an example, among other reasons.)…Naturally, everything there is full of learning; every verse & every word has chiddushim (novel thoughts) if we study it properly. But, one of the overall purposes is to teach us that everybody’s life is important.
(The Tongue, The Last Day of Judgement. Tape #450)