The Torah in Parashat Vayeshev tells of Yosef’s brothers initially plotting to kill him, and Reuven’s attempt to intervene. He suggested to the other brothers that instead of killing Yosef directly, they should instead him cast him into a pit in the wilderness. Reuven’s intent was to later rescue Yosef from the pit, but in the interim, the other brothers decided to lift Yosef from the pit and sell him as a slave.
The Gemara in Masekhet Makkot (10a) draws a connection between Reuven’s partially successful efforts to rescue Yosef and the arei miklat (“cities of refuge”) which would later be set aside in Eretz Yisrael for the purpose of rescuing inadvertent killers. Before Benei Yisrael’s entry into the Land of Israel, God commanded them to designate six such cities, and Moshe set aside three cities already during his lifetime, in the region east of the Jordan River settled by the tribes of Reuven, Gad and Menashe. The Torah names these cities in Sefer Devarim (4:43), and the first city listed was the city of Betzer, which served the tribe of Reuven. The Gemara comments that Reuven earned this distinction, of having its tribe’s city of refuge listed first, because he intervened to rescue Yosef from the other brothers.
How might we explain the link drawn by the Midrash between Reuven’s intervention on Yosef’s behalf, and the law of ir miklat?
One possibility, perhaps, relates to the theme of “separation” with which the arei miklat are associated. The Torah commands Benei Yisrael to “separate” or “set apart” (“tavdil” – Devarim 19:2) cities of refuge, and Moshe is described as having “separated” three cities for this purpose (“az yavdil Moshe” – Devarim 4:41). The cities of refuge were to be “separate” and “different.” Whereas inadvertent killers would elsewhere likely be met with contempt, derision and threats, in these cities of refuge they were welcomed, cared for and rehabilitated. Indeed, the Sefer Ha-chinukh (408) explains that the arei miklat were cities of Leviyim, because the Leviyim were expected to be especially kind, sensitive and compassionate, and could therefore be trusted to treat those seeking refuge with generosity and goodwill. The requirement of ir miklat was about “setting apart” cities as places of unique sensitivity, that would work patiently and lovingly with those who had made tragic, irresponsible mistakes, in order to help them recover and grow.
This concept, perhaps, underlies the connection drawn between Reuven’s attempt to rescue Yosef and the arei miklat. At a time when the brothers unanimously and passionately decided upon killing Yosef, Reuven managed to transcend the “groupthink” and reach a different decision. He withdrew from the consensus and went against the grain. He set the precedent of the “arei miklat” by setting himself apart, by not being afraid to think differently and oppose the group’s immoral decision. And he thus set for us the example of courage and resolve in standing up for what’s right even when this is unpopular, of “separating” from the majority when this is necessary to oppose injustice.