Reuben’s Grief

parashas Vayeishev 5782

“He tried to save him from them. He said, ‘Let us not take his life.” And Reuben went on, ‘Shed no blood. Cast him into that pit 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, JPSN

Reuben had every ill-conceived reason, to oppose Joseph’s ascendancy via the implications of dreams, as well as the lesser ascendancy given to him, as symbolized by his “multi-colored coat.” For, prior to Joseph’s being raised to fill the shoes of the role of the firstborn Reuben had lost the rights of the firstborn, because of his transgression against his father, when he cohabited with his father’s concubine, Leah’s maidservant, Bilhah (1 Chronicles 5:1). Rather, because he was the eldest, he knew he would be held responsible for the fate of Joseph; as a result, his responsibility prevailed over any resentment he might have had towards Joseph, or to his circumstances in general.

He had hoped to rescue Joseph from the pit where had been thrown; yet, when he returned, Joseph had already been sold to the caravan of traders was passing through Shechem. Where did he return from? The Torah does not indicate where he was during that time. Yet, it is obvious that he had left, sometime after Joseph had been thrown in the pit. Where did he go? I would surmise that he left before the brothers sat down for a meal; because, in the plain understanding, how could he eat? The Targum explains further:

“And Reuben returned to the pit; for he had not been with them to assist when they sold him, because he had sat fasting on account that he had confounded the couch of his father; and he had gone and sat among the hills, that he might return to the pit and bring him up for his father, if haply he might avert his anger. But when he had returned, and looked, and, behold, Joseph was not in the pit, he rent his clothes.” – Targum Jonathan on Genesis 37:29, sefaria.org

One implication that may be drawn from the Targum, is that Reuben’s conscience was immediately twinged when he initially heard his brother’s conspiring against Joseph. He had not been jealous of Joseph, who had secured the rights of the firstborn (Berachos 7b). Nor, would he dare take part in Joseph’s demise; so, instead, he fasted in penitence for his past transgression, perhaps, with the intent of gaining some clarity on the situation,, in order to form a response, and plan of action to save Joseph. Even so, he may have been primarily motivated by his having to answer to his father, for whatever fate Joseph would have met. This would account for his words, upon returning to the pit and seeing that Joseph was gone, when he said, “’The boy is gone. Now, what am I to do?’” (Genesis 37:31, JPSN).

Shabbat Shuvah 5782

“And they shall say on that day, ‘Surely it is because our G-d is not in our midst that these evils have befallen us.'”

– Deuteronomy 31:17, JPS 1985 Tanach

“They will be intelligent enough to conclude that all the troubles which suddenly overtook them must be due to G-d having deliberately left their midst.”

– Or HaChayim on Deuteronomy 31:17, sefaria.org

The key word here in this commentary is “deliberately,” as if it is implied that the people realized that their own sins compelled G-d to abandon them. This is an important connection for them to make, whereas without recognizing their own complicity, would only have led to blame G-d for His abandonment of them, as if they had no part in the matter. Consider the attitude of some, in blaming G-d for harsh events in life, holding Him accountable for our suffering, without acknowledging the sins that created the distance between us and Him in the first place. The point being, that it is the wrong attitude to have, a spoiled mindset to think that we deserve better, despite our abandoning Him through our own misdeeds. And, yet, He is compassionate and merciful, inasmuch that hiding His face from us, He desires us to cry out with a heartfelt repentant stance, taking it upon ourselves, to return to Him, in all of our ways, in order to elicit His forgiveness. Thus, it may be seen in regard to what is sometimes called today “tough love,” for example when parents stop enabling their children who exhibit poor behavior, and, rather, deny them assistance, or any kind of monetary support until they correct their errant ways.

And, so, we do not understand G-d to be capricious: rather everything is ultimately designed for our benefit, even the chastisement that is placed upon us, when we go astray of G-d’s commandments. For nothing happens by chance in an ordered world, that is a world whose order is often above our own understanding. Any randomness that appears to occur is only based upon  a perspective that does not have the type of faith in H’Shem that accepts His sovereignty over all events in the world, as well as those that occur to us on an individual level. To understand that everything happens according to G-d’s will, or is permitted by Him, is to recognize His absolute sovereignty in all realms of life. Surely, He is not to blame when bad things happen to good people, for man is responsible for his own sin against his fellow man, and if G-d permits something bad to happen to us, it is for a reason, that we are to attempt to understand. Otherwise, we will fall prey to a lack of faith in Him as sovereign. Furthermore, to be angry at Him for the bad things in our lives is to deny His sovereignty over us. We must return to Him, especially as we feel compelled to do on Shabbat Shuvah (the Sabbath of Repentance), so that we do not hold any grudges against the very one whose wisdom soars above our own.

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