Reuven says that he guarantees the safe return of Binyomin, and if not, his two sons will pay the price with their lives. Chazal tell us that Yaakov did not accept this guarantee, and called Reuven a “bachor shoteh” which is a “foolish firstborn,” and then explained, “Are they only your children and not my children?”
There are two difficulties in Yaakov’s response. First, if Yaakov didn’t consider Reuven’s pledge a valid guarantee, why did he use the word “firstborn” when calling him a fool? Just call him a “fool”! Secondly, what exactly was Yaakov’s complaint? True, it would also hurt Yaakov if Reuven’s sons were killed, but the purpose of the guarantee was to give Yaakov assurance, that Reuven would do his utmost to bring about the safe return of Binyomin.
It seems to me the answer lies in Reuven’s ability to lead the family as would be expected of a “first born”. When a leader searches for a solution to a certain predicament, he must ponder the long-term and peripheral ramifications of any short-term solution. It is true that this pledge would ensure that Reuven would do his best so as not to lose his children, and this showed Reuven’s short-term responsibility. However, the pledge did not take into account the consequences that the death of his children would have on Yaakov. This shows how Reuven lacked the necessary foresight to orchestrate a complex plan to save a group, taking into account all the implications involved.
A leader of a community must sometimes deal with his community in a very strict manner—far more so than when dealing with an individual. At other times, the same leader will determine that he must deal with his community in a very lenient manner—far more so than when dealing with an individual. The ability to make such an assessment is a required quality of a leader. The Maccabees understood that even during the tumultuous times in which they lived, they had the ability to lead their own private lives and be successful in the service of Hashem. However, they also understood that they were in the midst of a national crisis with far-reaching disastrous results—so much so that Klal Yisrael might lose their venue of service to Hashem. This is what galvanized them into action. They understood that it is not a personal issue but a national issue, and it deserves mesiras nefesh of their personal lives in order to be successful – just as their ancestors from the tribe of Levi answered a similar cry of “mi l’Hashem eilay!” during the time of the Golden Calf. Just as Levi’s actions quelled Hashem’s anger then so too did the actions of the Macabees mollify Hashem.
As we light our menorah in our own private homes, we are affirming our commitment to the ‘big picture’. We are showing that our ideal is not to be a foolish person, lacking understanding of the consequences of what we do, but rather we are willing to sacrifice ourselves for the glorification of Hashem’s name.