Reuven's return

A great deal can be learned from Reuven's part in the sale of Joseph.

Rabbanit Shira Smiles

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Young women study Torah
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Summary by Channie Koplowitz Stein

The sale of Joseph is a seminal event in the history of our nation. But in addition to the historical importance of the sale itself, there are many lessons to be learned from the details surrounding the core narrative. One of the secondary plot lines is the journey of Reuven (Reuben).

Jacob had sent Joseph to check on his brothers and bring back word as to their well being. The brothers saw Joseph coming toward them and immediately plotted to kill him. Reuven intervenes. He suggests that rather than killing Joseph themselves, they throw Joseph into a nearby pit where the forces of nature can do the job for them. The Torah then tells us that Reuven’s true purpose was to come back later and rescue Joseph. Reuven then disappears while the brothers go off to eat. When Reuven returns, he finds the pit empty and tears his garment in grief, not knowing that the brothers had sold Joseph to a passing caravan of Ishmaelites.

Perhaps the most overriding question of this whole episode is where did Reuven go? If he was intent on saving Joseph, why did he not wait nearby for the opportunity instead of going off somewhere, anywhere?

Rashi offers two explanations for Reuven’s disappearance: It was his day to return home and serve his father. Alternately, he was fasting and doing teshuvah for tampering with his father’s sleeping arrangements after the death of Rachel. Either way, Reuven was not around while the brothers ate and when they sold Joseph.

These explanations seem to raise more questions than they answer. First, honoring one’s father through serving him, although a major mitzvah, does not take precedence over pikuach nefesh, danger to life, which was clearly the situation Joseph would be in. Further, tampering with Jacob’s bed took place many years ago. What prompted Reuven to do teshuvah now?

Let us discuss the second question. When Reuven moved Jacob’s bed to the tent of his mother Leah, he believed he was doing the right thing and upholding the honor of his mother, writes Letitcha Elyon citing Rabbi Ruderman. He acted impetuously without consulting others, and relied only on his personal perception. Now the brothers seemed to be following his lead, relying on their own perception of Joseph as a rodef, a threat to themselves, and sentenced him to death without consulting any authorities.

Reuven now realized he had set a dangerous precedent of not consulting Torah authorities and understood that Joseph ‘s death sentence could be traced directly back to his own rash action, writes Ohel Moshe. As Rabbi Bergman elaborates in Shaarei Orah, the brothers’ decision to kill Joseph was a result of the same hastiness Reuven had exhibited, and by suggesting they throw him into the pit instead, Reuven was trying to buy time so they would reconsider and he could save Joseph.

When Joseph was not in the pit at his return, Reuven feared the worst. He tore his garment and lamented, for even now he had not considered enough options. This was his teshuvah. He had been put in a similar situation and had failed because he had not considered the effect of his actions on others. It was for this earlier hastiness that he was now doing teshuvah.

While earlier he had championed the honor of his mother, he did not consider the effect of his actions on his father. Here too, the brothers were judging Joseph through their own lens without considering either the youth of Joseph or the effect on their father, writes Rabbi Joseph Ben-Amram in Beer Hatorah. Reuven realized how easily one can err when one feels his actions are really only for the sake of mitzvah performance.

This was the concept that was innovative in the Teshuvah of Reuven. Others had done teshuvah before him, including Adam and Cain, but no one had done teshuvah for the consequences of actions they performed by doing what they believed was right.

On a similar note, how often do we push others aside in our zeal to have the opportunity to participate in a mitzvah, or make others wait while we do what we feel is more important? Our impetus is leshem Shamayim, for the sake of Heaven, but we sin in the process.

Rabbi Beyfus highlights this idea in Yalkut Lekach Tov. It is much easier to do teshuvah when you realize you have actually sinned than when you believe you have acted correctly. This is the meaning of the verse of the Prophet Hoshea, Reuven’s descendant, who wrote, “Return unto Hashem Your God, for you have stumbled in your sin,” you have fallen into sin because you thought you were performing a mitzvah.

Rabbi Frand expands on this idea, explaining that it is much more difficult to reason with someone who is on a mission, who feels self righteous, than to reason with someone who realizes he has actually sinned.

Moving in another direction, Reuven’s teshuvah was unique from another perspective. Until now, all teshuvah was depressive, being sorry. What Reuven added was a positive element to teshuvah, using the sin and the regret as a catalyst and motivation to change and repair the damaged relationship. As Rabbi Nissan Alpert writes in Limudei Nissan, Reuven used his remorse to return to the pit and check on Joseph. Wanting to repair his relationship with his father and with his Father enabled Reuven to feel his brother’s pain and prompted him to a course of action.

It is this idea that is inspired by the verse from Michah, “Rejoice not over me, my enemy, for though I have fallen I have (also arisen, though I sit in darkness, Hashem is a light for me).” Reb Chaim Shmuelevitz explains that it is precisely the experience of having fallen that precipitates one’s rise, the experience of darkness that allows one to see the light. Therefore, where a baal teshuvah stands, even a completely righteous person cannot stand, say our Sages.

Sometimes it is just habit and routine which lead us away from Hakodosh Boruch Hu. Only when one realizes how far one has strayed from his relationship with the Almighty can one attempt to return and repair the relationship, and that return can reach all the way up to God’s Throne of Glory. Teshuvah is about becoming more responsible and rebuilding that relationship with Hakodosh Boruch Hu as it was with Adam, writes Rabbi Ezrachi in Birkas Mordechai. In other words, doing teshuvah involves not only moving horizontally away from sin, but also moving vertically toward spiritual heights out of a sense of love.

Rabbi Weinberger introduces yet another approach in Shemen Hatov. While the brothers viewed Joseph as arodef, a pursuer who posed a mortal danger to them, Reuven viewed Joseph as a goel, a redeemer. After Reuven had sinned by tampering with Jacob’s sleeping arrangements, Reuven was afraid that he would be an outcast and no longer share in the Abrahamitic legacy and mission. When Joseph ‘s dream included eleven stars, Reuven recognized that dream as prophetic, and that he would remain one of the twelve tribes of Israel. The brothers, on the other hand, had interpreted the dream to mean that Joseph would usurp the role of firstborn.

Reuven therefore felt that his position as part of the family would only be ensured through Joseph and he was willing to subjugate himself to Joseph ‘s rule, even though he was the firstborn, for he realized that he had lost the right of the firstborn through his sin. Now, with Joseph not in the pit and thought that Joseph might be dead, he himself felt lost, for it was only through Joseph and Joseph ‘s prophecy that his sin would be forgiven and he would remain part of this Godly family. Reuven proved himself worthy, for he accepted his lesser role, unlike his uncle Esau who refused to submit himself to Jacob’s leadership even though he had sold his birthright to Jacob.

Since Parshat Vayeshev is usually read right before or during Hanukkah, The Sefer Menachem Tzion makes an interesting contrast between the character of Reuven and that of Greek culture. The greatness of Reuven, he notes, was that he recognized that he was not perfect, and he used that imperfection as a springboard for growth.

Greeks, on the other hand, recognized only perfection. They refused to accept anything less. Therefore they would allow an imperfect baby to die and they practiced euthanasia. They banned circumcision which commanded us to perfect ourselves rather than being born perfect, and they banned blessing the New Moon which was incomplete but had the ability to become whole and full. Nothing builds a person like the recognition of his own imperfection and limitations, a concept the Greeks could not accept even though this was the blessing that their ancestor Yafet received from his father Noah, to dwell in the tents of Shem and learn to perfect himself through those precepts of Torah that Shem and his descendants would live by.

This is the message of the lights of Hanukkah, continues Menachem Tzion. One can only appreciate light when one sits in darkness, and one can only improve through recognizing and accepting that one is imperfect. Reuven was now repairing the chasm between himself and both his earthly father and his heavenly Father. He now felt he could return to take his turn at serving Jacob along with his brothers. And so, as according to Rashi, Reuven left to serve Jacob, writes the Ohel Joseph, Reuven felt his brothers were more likely to listen to him after he repaired his relationship with their father.

Rabbi Schwab in Maayan Beit Hashoevah interprets Rashi’s comment more practically. It was much too long a journey to go back to Hevron to serve Jacob and still expect to be able to save Joseph. What Rashi meant, posits Rabbi Schwab, was that the brothers took turns taking their flocks to Shechem, where Jacob had originally sent them. They had moved on to Dothan, but each day one of the brothers would go back to Shechem to be in compliance with Jacob’s wishes and thus “serve” him. Reuven was on his way to Shechem and therefore missed the sale of Joseph. On the other hand, Rabbi Eliyahu Kitov offers that Reuven used his going to serve their father as a pretext to hide and wait in the mountains for an opportunity to save Joseph, but when he returned to the pit, Joseph was gone.

All this seems quite convoluted. Isn’t saving a life more important than any of these ruses? Rabbi Sorotskin explains that this indeed may be so, but when Hashem has a plan in mind, people are blinded from reason or reality, for Hashem wants his plan to go through, in this case for Joseph to descend to Egypt and eventually bring all Bnei Yisroel down to Egypt.

Hashem’s plan will prevail in all circumstances. The lights of Hanukkah teach us that whatever darkness we find ourselves in, personally or nationally, Hashem’s light is the only truth, writes Rabbi Salomon Breuer in Chochma uMussar. We must remain confident that though we find ourselves in darkness, and as empires fall, we subordinate ourselves to the light of Torah just as Reuven subordinated himself to the supremacy of Joseph.

Hashem’s plan for the final supremacy of our nation supporting the light of Torah values will emerge triumphant and will bring light to a world in darkness.

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