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    The oldest brother – Vayyeshev

    Joseph & his brothers at the pit

    In the Biblical panoply, Reuben, Jacob’s oldest son, is not one of the leading lights.

    He played a significant role in the fate of his younger brother Joseph. When the other brothers decided that Joseph had to be disposed of, Reuben succeeded in preventing the murder. But we wonder what his real feelings were.

    Deep down, did he share the brothers’ animosity to Joseph, and simply intervene to prevent bloodshed?

    The explanation the Torah gives really leaves the question in limbo. It says Reuben wanted “to deliver him from their hand and to get him back to their father” (Gen. 37:22).

    It sounds like a good idea but maybe it is only a delaying tactic. In Reuben’s mind it might have diffused the ugly situation, but it was only a temporary ploy as we see from the fact that when Reuben went looking for Joseph he couldn’t find him.

    Reuben and the brothers had agreed that instead of killing Joseph they would put him in a pit (where, according to the sages, there were scorpions and snakes – not a pleasant prospect at the best of times).

    While Reuben’s attention was diverted, the brothers had taken Joseph out of the pit and sold him to a caravan of passers-by. If Reuben had really been determined to save Joseph, surely he would have looked for an empty pit that had no snakes and scorpions, and he would have stood guard until the brothers went off on some other errand. So again we wonder about Reuben’s motives.

    The rabbis are not sure how to treat Reuben’s actions or lack of them. Some say that what diverted Reuben’s attention was that he needed to go and daven; others say that when there is an emergency to life or health, it overrides normal religious practices.

    There is no one complete answer, but at least some credit must be given to Reuben for trying.

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