Reuben’s Fears and the Consequences of not Acting with Determination
Rabbi Daniela Szuster
This week’s parashah, Parashat Vayeshev, starts telling the story of Joseph and his brothers which lasts the four last parashiyyot of the Book of Berehsit. The Torah tells us that Jacob favored Joseph among his children and gave him a special garment. Joseph loved to tell his dreams to his father and brothers. Joseph had grandiloquent dreams where he appears as the star and the rest of the family are like his servants. Besides this, the Torah tells us that Joseph brought bad reports of their brothers to his father. In sum, Joseph had very bad relationships with his brothers. They hated him and could not stand him anymore. Joseph’s brothers hated him so much at the point that they wanted to kill him. What evil plans did they have?
It is written in the Torah: “They said to one another, “Here comes that dreamer! Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; and we can say, ‘A savage beast devoured him.’ We shall see what comes of his dreams!” (Bereshit 37: 19-20).
The first plan was to kill him and throw him into a pit without any compassion. However, when Reuben, Jacob’s oldest son, heard that, he said: “Let us not take his life.” (Bereshit 37: 21). It seems that Reuben tried to defend Joseph and avoid any kind of damage to him. This was Reuben’s proposal: “Cast him into that pit out in the wilderness, but do not touch him yourselves” (Bereshit 37: 22). Now we see that Reuben tried to avoid killing Joseph but he proposed to throw him into a pit alive.
What was Reuben’s idea behind this plan? Did he want to kill Joseph but in an indirect way or did he really want to save him from his brothers?
The Torah adds in the previous quoted verse that Reuben “intended to save him from them and restore him to his father.” (Bereshit 37:22)
So, we may say that Reuben showed two faces here: In front of his brothers, he proposed an evil plan, to throw him into a pit and leave him there. However, inside himself, he had the good intention to save him in secret and restore him to his father.
Rashi comments on this verse: “The Holy Spirit (Scripture) bears witness for Reuben that he said this only for the purpose of saving his brother — that he would come afterwards and draw him up from there. He thought, “I am the first-born and the chief among them, and blame will attach to no one but myself.”
Why did Reuben have this dual attitude? Why did he hide his true intentions toward his brother?
We may say that Reuben didn’t have the courage to face his brothers directly and preferred to take an easy path. He tried to distract them from proposing a plan that they would accept. Instead of facing them and saying that that plan was a mistake they should not do any damage to their brother Joseph. Maybe he had thought that in this way, on one hand, he could have the support of their brothers, and on the other hand, he was doing a good action with Joseph and his father. However, Reuben’s plan ended up with a bad result.
When Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped Joseph of his tunic, took him and cast him into the pit. After that, they sold him to a caravan of Ishmaelites or Midianites. It is not clear why, but Reuben was not present at that moment. According to Rashi, Reuben was not there at that moment because it was his day to go and serve his father.
What happened when Reuben returned? The Torah tells us: “When Reuben returned to the pit and saw that Joseph was not in the pit, he rent his clothes. Returning to his brothers, he said, “The boy is gone! Now, what am I to do?” (Bereshit 37: 29-30)
When Reuben had returned to his brothers, he thought that Joseph was killed. Had anybody told Reuben the truth?
We can affirm that Reuben had good intentions, but he failed to respond appropriately to achieve his good intentions. He wanted to save his brother, but he didn’t act accordingly to ensure Joseph’s safety.
He should not have hidden his real intentions from his brothers despite his fear of them. He should have overcome his fears and act with determination.
Rabbi Yitzchak, the son of Maryon, said in Midrash Ruth Rabbah regarding Reuben’s attitude: “the scripture came to teach us that when a person does a mitzvah, one should do it with his or her whole heart.” (Midrash Ruth Rabbah 5:6)
This passage teaches us that because Reuben didn’t do a Mitzvah with his whole heart, Joseph ended up having a lot of troubles. If Reuben had really saved Joseph from his brothers and restored him to his father, the story would have been very different.
We can learn from this week’s parasha that if we are ready to do a good action, we need to do it completely, with all of our hearts, and not with half of it. We should have the courage to act with determination instead of hiding our real intentions.