“Reuben is Credited with Saving Joseph’s Life”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Joseph is dispatched by Jacob on a fateful mission to check on the well-being of his brothers who had gone to graze the sheep in Shechem. Eventually, locating his wandering siblings in Dotan, the brothers see Joseph from afar and conspire to kill him. They say to one another, Genesis 37:19,  הִנֵּה, בַּעַל הַחֲלֹמוֹת הַלָּזֶה–בָּא Behold, the dreamer is coming!

The brothers’ hatred of Joseph is so consuming, that even scripture confirms their intention to kill him, Genesis 37:18, וַיִּתְנַכְּלוּ אֹתוֹ לַהֲמִיתוֹ. they conspire against him to kill him. They shamelessly concoct a sophisticated alibi to cover their perfidious action. They say one to another, Genesis 37:20, וְעַתָּה לְכוּ וְנַהַרְגֵהוּ, וְנַשְׁלִכֵהוּ בְּאַחַד הַבֹּרוֹת, וְאָמַרְנוּ, חַיָּה רָעָה אֲכָלָתְהוּ “So now, come, let us kill him, and throw him into one of the pits, and we will say a wild beast has devoured him. Then we shall see what will become of his dreams.”

Despite their murderous intentions, there appears to be total unanimity among the brothers, until, unexpectedly, Reuben cries out in an attempt to save Joseph from their hands. Scripture reports (Genesis 37:21) וַיִּשְׁמַע רְאוּבֵן, וַיַּצִּלֵהוּ מִיָּדָם; וַיֹּאמֶר, לֹא נַכֶּנּוּ נָפֶשׁ and Reuben heard, and he rescued him [Joseph] from their hands. And he said, “Let’s not strike him mortally, shed no blood. Throw him into the pit in this wilderness, but lay no hand upon him.” Scripture clearly testifies (Genesis 37:22) that Reuben intended to rescue Joseph from his brothers, and return Joseph to his father.

The narrative then describes how the brothers strip Joseph of his multicolored tunic, and throw him into the pit. The brothers, with apparent indifference to Joseph’s life, sit down to eat bread. While eating, the brothers see a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead.

One of the brothers, Judah, suggests a better way of handling the matter without getting their hands dirty. Reasoning with his brothers, he says, 37:26, מַה-בֶּצַע, כִּי נַהֲרֹג אֶת-אָחִינוּ, וְכִסִּינוּ, אֶת-דָּמוֹWhat gain will it be for us if we kill our brother and cover up his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, but let our hand not be upon him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.” The brothers agree.

The Torah then reports that a group of Midianite traders pass by, draw Joseph up from the pit, and sell him to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver, who eventually bring Joseph to Egypt.

The sale of Joseph leaves us wondering about whatever became of Reuben’s proposed plan to save Joseph.

The Torah reports, Genesis 37:29,  וַיָּשָׁב רְאוּבֵן אֶל-הַבּוֹר, וְהִנֵּה אֵין-יוֹסֵף בַּבּוֹר; וַיִּקְרַע, אֶת-בְּגָדָיו Reuben returned to the pit, and behold, Joseph was not in the pit. The traumatized Reuben rends his garments, and cries out to his brothers, “The boy is gone! And I–where can I go?!” To support their alibi, the brothers take Joseph’s colored coat and dip it into the blood of a slaughtered goat, in order to deceive their father.

Citing the Midrash Genesis Rabbah 84:15, Rashi explains that Reuben was not present at the time of Joseph’s sale, for it was his turn to return home to attend to his father. An alternative reason given for Reuben’s absence is that Reuben was totally distracted and in deep mourning for having confused his father’s bed (Genesis:35:22) (see reference in Vayechi 5763-2002 to Reuben’s poor timing in life).

Whatever the reason for Reuben’s absence or lack of focus, it seems clear that Reuben did not save Joseph, and that he never carried out his plan to pull Joseph out of the pit, as the Bible testifies he intended to do. In fact, it is clear that it was Judah who was responsible for saving Joseph’s life, convincing his brothers to sell Joseph when he said, Genesis 37:27, “Let us sell him to the Ishmalites, but let our hand not be upon him, for he is our brother, our own flesh”. Nevertheless, scripture testifies, 37:21, וַיַּצִּלֵהוּ מִיָּדָם that Reuben rescued Joseph from his brothers’ hands.

Apparently, because he intended to pull his brother from the pit, and return him to his father, scripture accords Reuben full credit for saving Joseph from the hands of his determined brothers. In the face of his brothers’ unanimity, it took enormous personal courage on Reuben’s part to speak up, and to even suggest that they throw Joseph in a pit so that the brothers’ hands would not be tainted with Joseph’s blood.

Of course, it is true that Reuben was the oldest brother, who in ancient times was accorded a special, elevated status by the family. Still, it was nine very hostile brothers against one.

Furthermore, it may very well be that Reuben’s reason for wanting to save Joseph was only to save his own skin, since, as the oldest brother he would have been held responsible by Jacob for Joseph’s death. Nevertheless, Reuben gets the credit for saving Joseph.

Clearly, the Torah deeply values the enormous courage it took for Reuben to swim against the tide that was united in their determination to do away with the hated Joseph. Ultimately, it was really Reuben’s voice and plaintive argument that impacted on the brothers’ thinking, “softening” them up, so that Judah’s proposal to sell Joseph to the Ishmalites for a profit would be considered, and eventually accepted.

As is often the case in Jewish history, parallels abound. A somewhat similar story takes place some eleven hundred years later, in the year 167 BCE, when the Maccabees, in the famed confrontations of Chanukah, defeat the Syrian-Greeks. It was the single voice of Mattathias, the High Priest in the city of Modi’in, and his refusal to sacrifice a swine on the altar of G-d, that launched the rebellion of the Hasmoneons. It was the elderly Mattathias who took the law into his own hands, killing a traitorous Jew who offered to perform that perfidious act in Mattathias’s place. It was this initial bold gesture of Mattathias that inspired his brave sons to take heart and do battle against the powerful Syrian-Greeks, leading to the great victory and the wonderful festival of Chanukah.

Just as Reuben is credited with saving Joseph, so is Mattathias credited with launching the popular rebellion that resulted in the festival of Chanukah.

Good intentions are always good, but do not always result in a favorable outcome. In these instances, thank G-d, they did make a big difference! That is why we celebrate.

Forgive me for being a bit early, but Happy Chanukah to all.

May you be blessed.