We read in Parashat Vayeishev the disturbing story of mekhirat Yosef – the mistreatment Yosef suffered at the hands of his brothers, which resulted in his being sold as a slave and brought to Egypt. The Torah relates that the brothers initially decided to kill Yosef, and then Reuven, the oldest brother, sought to rescue Yosef by convincing the others to throw him into a pit rather than kill him directly. His intention was to later lift Yosef from the pit and bring him home. However, after the brothers cast Yosef into the pit, they saw merchants in the distance, and realized that they could profit by selling Yosef as a slave to the merchants, rather than letting him die in the pit. Later, Reuven returned to the pit – presumably, to carry out his plan and rescue Yosef – and found that Yosef was gone.
It is clear from the Torah’s presentation of the sequence of events that Reuven was not present when Yosef was lifted from the pit and sold to the merchants. Although he was clearly with the other brothers during the early stages of this episode, for some reason, he was absent at the moment when Yosef was sold.
This anomaly provides strong support for the view of the Rashbam (37:28) that the brothers did not sell Yosef. The Rashbam explains that after casting Yosef into the pit, the brothers left and moved somewhere else to eat, and it was there that they saw the Yishmaelite merchants and conceived of the plan to sell Yosef. Seeing that his brothers were planning to lift Yosef from the pit and sell him as a slave, Reuven swiftly returned to the pit to save Yosef, and found that he was gone – as other merchants had in the interim lifted him from the pit and later sold him to the Yishmaelite merchants, who brought him to Egypt. According to the Rashbam’s interpretation of the text, we understand full well what the Torah means when it says that Reuven returned to the pit and found that Yosef had been lifted out. He returned to the pit to save Yosef before the other brothers had a chance to sell him, only to find that Yosef had already been lifted from there.
The conventional understanding, of course, is that it was Yosef’s brothers who lifted Yosef from the pit and sold him as a slave – thus giving rise to the question of why Reuven was not present when this took place.
Rashi (37:29) famously cites two explanations from the Midrash. The first is that as Yaakov’s sons tended to his flocks, they took turns caring for their father, as he was elderly and needed assistance. Reuven’s turn happened to fall just at that time, and thus while the brothers reached the decision to lift Yosef from the pit and sell him as a slave, Reuven was back at home with Yaakov. Rashi’s second interpretation is that Reuven was “occupied with his sackcloth and fast” repenting for his sin with Bilha, which the Torah briefly mentions earlier (35:22).
Both these approaches seem difficult from a practical standpoint. Yosef was sold as a slave in Dotan, near Shekhem (37:17), which is quite a distance from Chevron, where Yaakov resided at the time (37:14). It would have taken Reuven several days to return home to his father and then arrive back at the pit, and thus it is hardly conceivable that he went to Yaakov, tended to him, and then returned to the pit during the period when the other brothers decided to sell Yosef. As for the second Midrashic interpretation cited by Rashi, many later writers raised the question of why Reuven would be engaged in prayer and repentance at the time of mekhirat Yosef for his misdeed committed many years earlier.
Leaving aside these questions, we might suggest that Chazal here seek to depict a model of noble and well-intentioned activities performed at the wrong time. After successfully convincing the other brothers to cast Yosef into a pit instead of directly killing him, it would have been wholly irresponsible for Reuven to then leave his brothers in order to care for his father or to pray. Knowing how his brothers despised Yosef, to the point where they decided to murder him, Reuven should not have turned away from even a few brief moments if he was seriously committed to rescuing Yosef. Chazal’s depiction of Reuven leaving to care for his elderly father or to repent is likely not intended to praise Reuven for his devotion to his father or for the intensity of his repentance, but rather to criticize Reuven for his negligence. Even inherently admirable actions – such as caring for an ailing father and prayer – lose their value if they are done at the wrong time. During those critical moments, as Yosef was trapped in a pit with his hostile brothers nearby, Reuven was to have been singularly focused on the task of rescuing Yosef, and it was thus not legitimate for him to leave, even for the lofty purpose of caring for Yaakov or praying for forgiveness.