The Torah in Parashat Vaetchanan lists the three cities east of the Jordan River that Moshe designated as arei miklat – cities of refuge for the protection of inadvertent killers fleeing vengeful relatives of their victims (4:43). The Gemara in Masekhet Makkot (10a) notes that the Torah first lists the city Betzer, which was situated in the territory of Reuven, before mentioning the other cities, which were located in the regions assigned to Gad and Menashe, respectively. This sequence, the Gemara comments, served to give honor to Reuven, who was the first who tried to rescue Yosef when his brothers plotted to kill him. As we read in Sefer Bereishit (37:22), as the other brothers planned to kill Yosef, Reuven intervened, suggesting that instead of killing Yosef directly, they should instead cast him into a pit, and allow him to then die naturally. Reuven’s intent was to later return to the pit to rescue Yosef. Since he was the first to try to save Yosef’s life, the Gemara says, the tribe of Reuven is mentioned first in the context of the arei miklat, which serve the purpose of saving people’s lives from those trying to kill them.
Interestingly, Reuven here is praised for his efforts, despite the fact that they were only partially successful. By the time Reuven returned to the pit to rescue his brother, Yosef had been lifted out of the pit and sold as a slave. Moreover, the Gemara (Shabbat 22a) famously comments that the pit contained snakes and scorpions – a comment that could perhaps be understood as subtle criticism of Reuven, who tried to save Yosef’s life by casting him into a pit full of deadly reptiles. Nevertheless, Reuven is credited with acting first, before Yehuda, who later advised his brothers to sell Yosef into slavery rather than take his life. Although Reuven’s initiative was fundamentally flawed and woefully insufficient, he deserved praise for his zeal in rushing to try to save his brother’s life.
Significantly, in Yaakov’s final remarks to Reuven before his death, he criticized his firstborn son for his rash, impulsive nature: “Pachaz ka-mayim – al totar” – “As you are reckless like water – you shall not exceed [your brothers in prominence]” (Bereishit 49:4). While this is generally understood as referring specifically to the incident of Bilha, which Yaakov mentions more explicitly in the next clause (“ki alita mishkevei avikha” – “because you ascended onto your father’s bed”), it might also have been intended as a more general criticism of Reuven’s nature. Yaakov felt that Reuven was too rash and quick to serve in a leadership role, which requires patient and careful deliberation. Leadership was thus granted to Yehuda, who was more patient and deliberate. Ironically, the same trait for which Reuven is praised by the Gemara – his rapid reaction to the brothers’ plot to kill Yosef – is the reason for why he was deemed unfit for leadership.
Zeal and haste are both admirable and dangerous. People who act quickly display passion, sincerity and resolve to the cause, but also run the risk of failing to adequately plan and calculate. The different aspects of Reuven’s quality of “pachaz ka-mayim” thus reflect the tension that exists between the value of alacrity and the dangers of impulsivity, the need to act with rigor and zeal, on the one hand, while at the same time ensuring to think patiently and carefully in order to avoid reckless decisions and actions.
(See Rav Avraham Nesher’s Pirchei Shoshana, Parashat Vayechi)