Shabbat Vayeshev: Reuben, Almost The Hero


have a soft spot for Reuben, firstborn son of Leah and Jacob. Though eventually he is superseded by Judah, Reuben does two things that illuminate his character, meriting a closer look.

The first occurs when Reuben is 7 years old [Radak]. While playing in a field during the summer wheat harvest, Reuben finds colorful dudaim — mandrake plants — and presents them to his mother, Leah [Genesis 30:14]. As the sensitive eldest son in a nomadic, polygamous family, Reuben sees his mother’s unloved misery, noting that her happiness increases with each son she bears. He gives his mother the bouquet of purple flowers intending to cheer her up.

The flowers also are prized as fertility aids. Centuries later the word dudaim is equated with its homophonic Hebrew cousin, doda’i, meaning “my love” [Seforno]. And while Reuben’s gift might seem intrusive to 21st-century readers, in that time and place it is a “strikingly thoughtful” gesture, said Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. Rachel, the favored but barren rival wife, anxious to acquire Reuben’s dudaim for herself, trades Leah a night with Jacob in exchange.

Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat Candles: 4:10 p.m.
Torah: Gen. 37:1-40:23
Haftarah: Amos 2:6-3:8
Havdalah: 5:14 p.m.

Even as a child, then, Reuben took his responsibilities as eldest son seriously. He was protective and proactive on his mother’s behalf.

Fast-forward to our parasha. Reuben is a grown man of 24 when he saves his 17-year-old brother Joseph from death. While it is frequently thought that Reuben bungled his chance to save Joseph, a closer look will reveal that, on the contrary, Reuben’s behavior justified the Torah’s approving phrase, vayatzilehu miyadam, “he saved him from death at their hands” [Gen. 37:21].

What happened at the edge of the desert sandpit that fateful day between Reuben and his brothers? Our parasha presents the breathtaking confrontation.

Sent by his father Jacob to check on the welfare of his brothers and the flocks, Joseph finds his brothers camped in Dotan. The brothers drove the flocks far from Hevron specifically to escape the fraught atmosphere of their home compound which had become unbearable for them [Rabbi Binyamin Lau]. They feel that their father takes them and their labor for granted, while favoring Joseph — their tale-bearing teenaged brother — even gifting the boy with a resplendent striped cloak befitting a prince. Joseph further incites his brothers’ enmity by recounting his dreams of dominance over them. The bitter injustice of their father’s favoritism, year after year, has permeated the brothers’ psyches, imprinting itself on their hearts to the point that they cannot bear even to greet Joseph civilly [Gen. 37:4].

The brothers, now in their distant camp, spot Joseph from afar, unmistakable in his distinctive tunic. They think, “Can we never escape him?!” As one, they hit upon the horrific solution: They will kill him with their bare hands and throw him into a sandpit, saying later that a savage beast devoured him.

Only Reuben refuses. He speaks up, facing nine angry, powerful brothers across the gulf of the desert pit. “No! We must not take his life!” By putting the brakes on the small mob — a principled and dangerous stand — Reuben saves Joseph’s life [Rashi, and Makkot 10a]. Whatever happens to Joseph from this moment forward — and it will be vicious, brutal and heartless—the boy is not murdered. Twice the Torah uses the word hitzil, “he saved,” characterizing Reuben’s action and intention [Gen. 37:21-23].

Reuben, desperate to save Joseph, tries twice to deflect the brothers, as seen in the two vayomer (“he said”) expressions [Gen. 37:21-22]. First, when Joseph is still a distance away, Reuben tells the brothers, “No! Don’t kill him!” When the brothers don’t respond, Reuben’s anxiety crescendos as Joseph nears the camp. It is Reuben’s “High Noon” moment. He knows it will come down to him against the nine brothers. They will kill or disable him, then go after Joseph.

So Reuben’s second vayomer (“And Reuben said, ‘Shed no blood!’”) is a strategic stalling tactic. Seeing that the brothers are hell-bent, Reuben agrees to their throwing Joseph into the pit alive. He keeps watch, writes Nechama Leibowitz, intending to retrieve the boy when the camp is asleep [Tanchuma]. In fact, Reuben is right; the brothers very nearly commit murder, “killing” Joseph by proxy [Aviva Zornberg]. They fall on him, beat and strip him, tear his striped cloak and throw him, weeping and barely conscious, into the pit.

Alas, fate intervenes before Reuben can effect his rescue, and Joseph is sold to a caravan of slave traders. But Reuben did divert the brothers from fratricide. Deaf as they were to morality and to Joseph’s cries, Reuben’s two emphatic “don’ts” gave the brothers pause. While he failed to carry Joseph back to their father, it is thanks to Reuben — empathic as a child and courageous as an adult — that Joseph survived, ultimately saving his brothers, and the ancient world, from starvation. 

Sandra E. Rapoport, award-winning author of “Biblical Seductions,” is at work on her fourth book, a historical novel set in biblical times.