As the eldest of 12 brothers, Reuven should have immense authority. And in a moment of crisis, he steps forward. Hearing his brothers’ murderous designs on Yosef, he makes an attempt to save his obnoxious younger sibling’s life: “He said, ‘Let us not take his life.’ And Reuben went on, ‘Shed no blood! Cast him into that pit out in the wilderness, but do not touch him yourselves’–intending to save him from them and restore him to his father.” (Genesis 37:21-22)
But we don’t hear again from Reuven for another few verses. In the scene that follows, Yehudah suggests sparing Yosef’s life in another fashion–by selling him into slavery. The deal is done, and then the eldest reappears: “When Reuben returned to the pit and saw that Joseph was not in the pit, he rent his clothes” (37:29). What did the Torah just say? “When Reuben returned to the pit?” Where did he go? Apparently, soon after stepping forward, Reuven steps out.
This leads us to wonder how wise it was of Reuven to suggest throwing Yosef into the pit in the first place. If he has already captured his brothers’ attention by saying “Shed no blood!” then what is the point of the pit?
The Torah tells us that Reuven had good intentions–“to save him from them and restore him to his father”–but good intentions can be neutralized by hesitancy and a lack of immediate action. In the extreme, as in this case, might Reuven actually be guilty of standing idly by in the presence of injustice?
On Shabbat morning, we’ll look into this episode and other examples of people evading their responsibility to take life-saving actions.
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi David Wise