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Reuben said to (his brothers): 'Do not shed blood! Throw (Joseph) into the pit… and do not touch him.' That was with the intention of saving him, to return him to his father. (37:22 - translated according to Rashi)
As the oldest of the brothers, Reuben intervened to prevent the deep resentment of Joseph's conduct causing a fatal tragedy. But Reuben did not 'act on his words' -return him to his father, or even save him from his brothers. For it was Judah, not Reuben who later on successfully persuaded the brothers to keep Joseph alive by selling him, arguing: 'What profit is there in killing our brother and covering his blood? Come let us sell him…' (37:26-27). Rashi comments that Reuben was absent at the time. He gives two reasons - his turn to take care of his father, and he was in mournful repentance having become in his father domestic affairs at too close range (as per 35:22).
Both reasons however, show a failure to carry out responsibilities. He had not been sufficiently proactive at a time of crisis to temporarily rearrange his other duties. In attempting to act responsibly, he acted too inflexibly…
That theme repeats itself in two other events concerning Reuben:
(a) Earlier, his protest in his mother Leah's conjugal rights being given second place to Bilhah - his father's Rachel-associated concubine (as per Rashi's explanation of 35:22). Instead of dropping a strong hint to his father that Leah had to be taken care of, he did an inappropriate action. He physically entered the strictly private area of the father's personal relationships. In attempting to act responsibly, he acted too directly and powerfully.
(b) Later, Simeon was taken hostage in Egypt pending Benjamin's arrival. Reuben offered to take care of Benjamin to the degree that 'you may even kill my two sons' (42:37). In attempting to act responsibly, he framed his argument inappropriately. Indeed, Jacob would not listen to him, and according to Rashi, ridiculed the way Reuben had framed the offer. It was again Judah who did the final act of persuasion - with 'I personally will be his guarantor…' (43:9) that enabled Benjamin to be given permission to accompany his brothers on their second descent to Egypt. (That also implies that when the famine 'became heavy' (43:1), Reuben seemed to be once again out of the picture.)
Having the birthright (and for that matter any person with the status of leader) implies being able to carry out responsibility - being at the right place, at the right time, with the right sense of priorities, and with an appropriate response to each situation… not too heavy / impetuous / weak-willed / or inappropriate.
That explains Jacob's final rebuke to Reuben: 'Reuben - You are my firstborn son! … with high position in status and power (which had been incorrectly used - as above, and was exemplified by) 'you were exceedingly hasty as you intervened in your father's domestic arrangements' - therefore you will 'not have the leadership…'
Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.
Parashiot from the First, Second, and Third Series may be viewed on the Shema Yisrael web-site: http://www.shemayisrael.co.il/parsha/solomon/archives/archives.htm
Also by Jacob Solomon:
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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