(Reuven) nolad b’arba asaar l’Kislev – Reuven was born on the 14th of Kislev (Yalkut Shimoni Shemot 162). So happy birthday, Reuven!
Reuven bechori ata… Reuven, you are my first born… Pachaz k’mayim al totar … you are unstable like water, therefore you will not benefit (from the advantages of being the first born) (Breishit 49:3-4).
When I think of tragic figures in Tanach, Reuven always seems to be at the top of the list. How many times does he try to do the right thing, to right an injustice, to protect the innocent and the defenseless, and how many times does he fail? Beginning with the death of his stepmother and the perceived slight that Yaakov delivers to Reuven’s mother, Leah, continuing with his only partially successful attempt to save Yosef from death at the hands of his brothers, and culminating with the silent but resounding rebuke Yaakov delivers by ignoring Reuven’s offer to protect Binyamin in Egypt, it seems that Reuven always comes up short. Let us flesh out these different episodes and see if we can find a common theme between them.
In Parshat VaYishlach (35: 22) we read how Reuven ostensibly slept with Bilha, Rachayl’s maidservant and Yaakov’s wife (though the Torah curiously labels her here as Yaakov’s concubine). The most accepted explanation of this event is that following the death of Rachayl, Yaakov, who up until this point made his primary home with Rachayl, chose to make Bilha’s tent into his permanent domicile. Reuven, who keenly felt the shame and pain that his mother experienced as a result of Yaakov’s decision, decided to do something about it. Going into Bilha and Yaakov’s shared tent, he “disturbed” (bilbel in Hebrew) his father’s bed, an act of disrespect that was akin to having actually slept with Bilha.
While it is clear that Reuven was motivated by a desire to redeem his mother’s honor, it is unclear what other avenues might have been open to him to express his displeasure with his father’s decision. Yet that may well be part of the point of the story. The fact that Reuven’s motivations were pure does not provide license for rash conduct. Similarly, the fact that no good options presented themselves does not absolve him of responsibility for wrongful behavior. One test of leadership is to find a way forward despite the absence obviously good options, and despite his good intentions and desire to protect his mother’s honor, Reuven fell short.
(We explained this episode in line with the overwhelming consensus of meforshim who follow the understanding expressed in the Gemara (Shabbat 55b) that Reuven did not actually sin. Nonetheless, it is worth noting that at least Radak accepts the simple meaning of the passuk and explains that Reuven was in fact intimate with Bilha. He does not explain what Reuven’s motives might have been.)
The next place that we find Reuven trying, but largely failing, to do the right thing is in this week’s Parsha, when he seeks to prevent the rest of his brothers from murdering Yosef. The Torah tells us (37:21-22) that upon hearing of their plan Reuven calls his brothers out, exclaiming “lo nacenu nefesh”- we should not spill blood. Instead, Reuven suggests that they throw Yosef into a pit with the intention that he later will return to save Yosef.
At first glance it appears that Reuven is successful, as the brothers do indeed throw Yosef into a pit without otherwise harming him. Moreover, the Torah itself proclaims Reuven’s success, as the passuk says “VaYatzilehu Miyadam”, and he (Reuven) saved him (Yosef) from their hands. On the other hand it appears that Reuven’s success is limited at best. Firstly, we see no direct reaction to Reuven’s entreaties from his brothers. As Rabbanit Sarah Rimon notes in her treatment of Yehuda’s leadership role as opposed to Reuven’s, available here and here, even when they seem to follow his wishes, the Torah does not directly ascribe their actions to Reuven. In fact they ignore him. As we stated above, this pattern is repeated later when Yaakov also dismisses Reuven so cavalierly that he doesn’t even bother to acknowledge Reuven’s statement.
Another interesting phenomenon emerges from a careful reading of the passukim. In both passuk 21 and 22 the Torah introduces Reuven’s comments with the word “VaYomer”, “and he said”, even though nothing happens in between to interrupt Reuven. This repetition is of course reminiscent of when representatives from the tribes of Reuven and Gad approach Moshe and ask to be allowed to inherit the land that Bnei Yisrael had conquered on the Eastern bank of the Jordan River (BaMidbar 32:2-4). There, too we see the word “VaYomru”, “and they said”, repeated twice for no apparent reason. The explanation is the same in both instances. Both Reuven and the tribal representatives made a statement that they thought would trigger an automatic response of understanding and acquiescence. Yet none was forthcoming. As a result a second, a more explicit statement is necessary. In the case of the tribes they spell out to an unsympathetic Moshe Rabbenu what they want, namely to stay put on the Eastern bank of the Jordan. In the case of Reuven he recognizes that the silence is a rejection of his position, despite the fact that it is a statement of what is inherently moral. Instead he retreats to a fallback position. If you are unwilling to spare Yosef, Reuven tells his brothers, at least throw him in the pit to die and spare yourselves the guilt of actually murdering him with your own hands. It is this suggestion that they adopt, without explicitly acknowledging that they are accepting Reuven’s advice.
Why would the brothers be so dismissive of Reuven? Perhaps, like Yaakov, they see him as an insignificant player, someone whose judgement can’t be trusted. Another possibility, suggested by Rabbanit Rimon and others, is that Reuven is somewhat distanced from his brothers. Not once in any of the exchanges between Reuven and his siblings do we see the root word of “ACH” “brother” or “brothers” used. We can contrast this to the interaction between Yehuda and the rest of the tribes where familial references are used as a matter of course. And the fact that Reuven is not even with them when they sit down to the fateful meal where the decision to sell Yosef is reached speaks volumes of the seeming estrangement in the family.
The final and perhaps most damning failure of Reuven’s leadership is on full display when the brothers return from their first meeting with the Paro’s viceroy, who unbeknownst to them is Yosef (42:36-38). Yosef has imprisoned Shimon and then sends the rest of the brothers away, with a strong admonishment not to return to Egypt unless they also bring Binyamin. When the brothers reach home and tell Yaakov what has happened he is understandably distraught. Reuven again tries to do the right thing, and implores his father to entrust Binyamin to him, vowing against the lives of his sons that he will return with Binyamin. As Ramban notes, Reuven’s vow is not to be understood as an offer to have his sons die, but is merely an accepted language of a personal undertaking of responsibility. It is in fact almost identical to the vow that Yehuda later takes to protect Binyamin, an oath that Yaakov grudgingly accepts. So why is Reuven’s offer so emphatically rejected that it does not, as we noted above, even merit a response from Yaakov while Yehuda is ultimately entrusted with Binyamin’s welfare?
Apparently Reuven has misread the map once again. Reuven wants to take Binyamin immediately upon their return from Egypt, to go back and return with Shimon. No doubt he is motivated by a desire to save Shimon, languishing in an Egyptian prison. Yet it is unreasonable to expect that Yaakov would be ready to send Binyamin so soon after the disastrous results of the last visit to Egypt. Unlike Yehuda, who allows Yaakov to come to the realization that there is no choice but to send his sons back with Binyamin, Reuven jumps the gun. Reuven’s timing dooms his proposal from the start. Reuven sees himself as the first born, the one who needs to assume responsibility. But his father and siblings see an individual who may mean well, but in the case of Yaakov cannot be relied upon, and in the case of the brothers is simply not one of them.
Alas, there is no happy ending for Reuven. Marginalized in his attempt to lead the family and ultimately frozen out of the rights of the Firstborn by Yaakov’s decision to bypass him in favor of Yosef, Reuven is a forlorn figure. Yet ironically enough it is here that Reuven shows his true greatness. In the face of being stripped of his rights and dignity Reuven could easily have rebelled, thus causing even greater rifts and stresses in Yaakov’s family. Instead, Reuven accepts his fate, and the sons of Yisrael were twelve.