Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 21 December 2019 / 23 Kislev 5780

Parshat Vayeshev

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
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Reuven’s involvement in the events that lead to the sale of Yosef is obscure. His position is clearly not one of unity with the other brothers; it appears as if his presence during those moments before Yosef approached the brothers in Shechem was by chance. In fact, he disappears during the decisive moments of the incident, and it is not clear if, or how, Reuven ever learns of the sale of Yosef.

One thing is clear: Reuven tried to save Yosef. Another thing is also clear: He fell short. When he heard his brothers plotting to kill the approaching ‘master of dreams,’ he jumps to Yosef’s aid. The Torah records: Reuven heard and rescued him from their hands. He said: We shall not kill him. But then Reuven suggests throwing him into pit, in what appears to be a bid to passively kill him instead of actively kill him. But the Torah reveals Reuven’s true motive: he did this in order to rescue him from their hands and to bring him back to his father.

We are left to wonder why Reuven could not do what he intended. The next we see of Reuven is his “returning” — from where, we do not know — after the brothers lifted Yosef from the pit and sold him as a slave to a caravan of Ishmaelites. Rashi cites the Midrash, explaining that the word “returning” tells us not only that he returned, but also what he was doing during his absence. He was “returning” — repenting for his earlier sin of meddling in the placement of his father’s bed. A decade earlier, after the death of Rachel, Reuven, motivated by his mother’s honor, moved Yaakov’s bed from Bilha’s tent to his mother Leah’s tent. This is the stain on Reuven’s past that haunts him throughout his life.

Reuven’s expression upon discovering Yosef’s absence is striking: The child [Yosef] is not there, and I — where can I come to? This could easily be mistranslated as “where can I go?” meaning “where can I flee with my grief?” But this is not what Reuven says. He says there is no place he can come to — no place he can be. This expresses a deep feeling of shame and remorse, the anticipation of reprimand, whether deserved or underserved. Reuven says, there is no place where I could be at rest, where I could hold up my head. Everyone will shun me.

Rav Hirsch suggests that this may be both his response to the shame of his lack of resolve in saving Yosef and also the reason for the lack of resolve in the first place. Perhaps he could not summon the necessary strength to act because he was troubled by the awareness of his own sin — the awareness of his own weakness robbed him of the strength to take more decisive action. This may be why his immediate reaction to his valiant but insufficient attempt was to repent for his past misdeeds.

Indeed, Reuven teaches a most power lesson in human psychology. The burdens of shame and worthlessness are fierce inhibitors. Removing those burdens can give life to new resolve.

  • Source: Based on Commentary, Genesis 37:21-22, 30

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