When Reuven hears his brothers plotting to kill Yosef with their own hands, he immediately intercedes suggesting they toss him into a pit instead, leaving him to die on his own. Although he did not reveal to them his ultimate intention to come back and retrieve Yosef, the Torah interjects and testifies that Reuven maneuvered it such for the sole reason ‘to rescue him and return him to his father’.
Yet, Rashi cites the Midrash that quotes Reuven as saying to himself when first contemplating what to do, “I am the firstborn and the eldest, the sin will be attributed only to me”.
Was he a hero that truly wanted to save his brother, or was he just trying to save his own skin and reputation lest his father place the blame all on him?
The Maharshal asserts that his deed was flawed since it was done for less than an altruistic motive. It is for this reason, he avers, that Yehuda, in his father’s blessing, was acknowledged as a ‘lion cub’ who ‘from the prey, my son, you elevated yourself’, as he deterred the brothers from their plan to slaughter Yosef, convincing them to sell him instead. Reuven’s less than noble efforts, however, did not merit such recognition.
Can this be accurate? Doesn’t Rashi state earlier that the very name Reuven, a contraction of the sentiment, ‘See my son’, was expressed prophetically by his mother, Leah, at his birth to contrast the stark difference between Esav who could not accept the reality of Yaakov’s gaining the ‘birthright’, seeking to utterly destroy him, and Reuven, who although usurped by Yosef in being deemed the ‘firstborn’, nevertheless saved his life?
But the Maharshal’s point is well taken. How are we to understand Reuven’s fear of being blamed as his motivation in the context of his being labeled a heroic rescuer?
Why did Reuven indeed differ from his brothers in not fearing Yosef’s attempts to the thwart them from their father’s affection by implicating them in many libelous claims?
The Maharshal properly indicates that Yehuda is noted for rising above their objective to rip Yosef apart. Yet, ironically, in distinction to Reuven’s stated intention to clearly save Yosef completely, Yehuda merely convinced his brothers with pragmatic rationalizations alone, claiming we gain nothing by killing him, and might as well just dispense with ‘the problem’ by selling him down the river.
Who then is the true ‘savior’, Reuven who sought to return him to his father, or Yehuda who was prepared to get rid of Yosef, never to see him again?
When Reuven returns to the pit and discovers Yosef is gone, he exclaims, “The ילד — the boy is gone!” Yosef was no ‘boy’. He was a strapping seventeen-year-old, who might be labeled a youth, but certainly not a child. What was his intention in calling him a kid?
One other time Reuven refers to Yosef as a kid.
When the brothers, many years later, are suddenly accused of being spies, and the ‘viceroy’ takes one of them hostage until they bring their youngest brother back, proving their story, they introspect and perceive this circumstance as divinely directed to punish them for their treatment of Yosef. They confess saying to one another, “Indeed we are guilty concerning our brother inasmuch as we saw his heartfelt anguish when he pleaded with us, and we paid no heed; that is why this anguish has come upon us.”
Reuven speaks up to them, saying, "Did I not speak to you saying. ‘Do not sin against the ילד — boy,’ but you would not listen! And his blood as well — behold — is being avenged.”
(בראשית מב כא-כב)
Why is Reuven castigating them in their moment of anguish and regret? What is there to gain by his admonishing them, saying, “I told you so!”?
In the tensions that develop in any relationship, there are two critical factors that need to be addressed. Sensitivity and understanding of the one who may have offended you. Secondly, to be aware of our own reactions — or better yet, our overreactions.
The brothers initially felt justified in their condemning Yosef and sentencing him to death. What was missing in their ‘reaction’ was the removal of instinctive emotion that so often clouds one’s thinking processes. When confronted by Yehuda, the approach he took in convincing them to sell him was based on the practical assessment of the situation. Killing him might quell their anger and placate their resentment, but it was not necessary to accomplishing their goal of removing a brother they were convinced would interfere with the legacy of the patriarchs.
When they subsequently realized they were being punished, they took their regret to another level by confessing that they were too harsh in their initial reaction in not opening their hearts to hear Yosef’s desperate pleas.
Reuven, though, represented a totally different perspective. One must be more gracious in understanding the perpetrator and his intentions. So often we only focus on our needs forgetting to comprehend the person we think is out to get us. Reuven understood that Yosef, although nearly an adult, was merely a ‘kid’ in his enthusiasm, and had erred because of that youthfulness, not out of malice.
Reuven’s assertion that ‘the sin will be attributed’ to himself if he does not save Yosef, was not a feeble attempt to save his own reputation, but rather his accepting the fact that as the oldest brother perhaps it was his fault he didn’t influence and temper his kid brother’s youthful enthusiasm, that led Yosef to act the way he did.
The Midrash in fact says that after discovering the ‘boy is gone’, when Reuven then says, “And I — where can I go?”, it is implying that Reuven was wondering whether he will ever be forgiven for his sin of moving his father’s bed from the tent of Bilhah to his mother Leah’s tent.
What does that sin have any relevance to the situation with Yosef?
Perhaps, Reuven was reflecting on his own youthful impetuousness — he was all of twelve years old or so at the time of that episode — and bemoaning the fact that evidently, he did not yet succeed in refining his own instinct for self-control, for otherwise Yosef would have learned that skill from him and be deserving of being saved.
So at the end of the day both Reuven and Yehuda were heroes.
Reuven’s heroic efforts saved Yosef from the original instinct of the brothers to quickly dispatch with Yosef.
Yehuda, though, saved them from themselves. He began the process of teaching responsibility for our actions, and how our responses must be critically measured to reflect careful and considerate thought, not merely to soothe our anger.
After they became self-aware in controlling their emotions, Reuven reasserts the vital lesson he had honed firsthand in his own experiences, to never forget the second lesson — to consider where the other individual is coming from before drawing conclusions.
We must be alerted to saving others, but equally vigilant in saving ourselves from ourselves!
צבי יהודה טייכמאן