by Shmuel Katanov
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In the story of Joseph and the brothers, there's one incident that sticks out and makes this whole story look very puzzling. Let's delve into it and try to understand it.
As you already know, there are was a tension between Joseph and older brothers, one against the many. Some commentators say it was jealousy, some say simply hatred, but let's look at it in more details.
"And Joseph went after his brothers, and found them in Dotan" says in Midrash Tanchuma, Parashat Vayeshev 13:6 (Gen. 37:17-18). Joseph was coming towards his brothers per his father's request. As he was approaching, the brothers saw him from afar and said to each other, here's the dreamer coming, and they started thinking up plans of how to get rid of him. Some suggested to kill him to solve this problem once and for all. The older brother Reuven suggested to throw him in the pit. He said why kill your own blood, your own brother, when we can accomplish the same by throwing him into the empty pit. In Masechet Shabbat 22A says: "Pit empty from water but full of snakes and scorpions". Everyone liked this idea, only Reuven thought to himself that he will come later to rescue him.
When Joseph came close to his brothers, they pulled off his fancy coat - the one his father gave him, the extra one - Rashi (Parashat Bereshit 37:24), and threw him into the pit. As they sat down to eat, they saw a caravan passing by, so out came another brilliant idea to sell their small brother to Arab merchants, to be taken to a distant land (Bereshit 37:27). And so they did. As much as Joseph pleaded with them, they were determined on their plan and have not turned from their way, and slowly the caravan left from their eyesight.
After when the brothers left the scene, Reuven came over to rescue Joseph, but to his astonishment, Joseph was gone. Reuven tore his clothing in grief, but it was too late - Joseph was nowhere to be found. Rashi (Bereshit Rabbah 84:19).
Where was Reuven? Wasn't he the one who gave an idea to throw Joseph into the pit?! Why didn't he stay to make sure his suggestion was carried out? Why did he leave the scene? In Midrash Tanchuma, Vayeshev 13:9 (Gen. 37:22:) says: "If Reuven had known that the Holy One would write this verse about him (about his suggestion and his intention of coming back for Joseph later), he would have placed Joseph on his shoulders and brought him unto his father."
One of the answers Rashi gives in (Bereshit Rabbah 84:19), he says that Reuven was doing a teshuvah, for the incident that took place after the death of Rachel. What he did was that he moved the Jacob's bed from one tent to another. But hold on a second, that incident happened 10 years ago. Why was he doing the teshuvah now after 10 years?
When Rachel Imeynu died, Reuven thought to himself and said that the right place for the bed to be is in his mother's tent, Leah. Without consulting with his father whether he wants this to be done or not, he has moved the bed by himself. What he did was - he has challenged the authority of his father Jacob - by moving the bed and doing it out of his own thinking, calculations and conclusions. As a result, of this, the punishment which Reuven suffered was threefold -- he lost the birthright, the priesthood and the kingship.
And now 10 years later Reuven looks at Joseph and his brothers, and asked himself – why are the brothers treat Joseph this way? Okay granted, he may have said lashon hora or slander, he may have behaved differently then you, but he is their small brother and may have been too young to make the right decisions, they should have given him the benefit of the doubt. And if Joseph is doing something wrong, let the brothers go and ask their father Jacob to get involved, so he can let the brothers know how they should behave in this situation. Maybe Jacob will admonish Joseph, or maybe he will let them know how to behave towards Joseph so this issue should not escalate into something out of proportions - as they say: "nip it at the bud" under their father's supervision. Which would make things correct and no one would of get hurt and no ill feelings would of been around.
But something else was happening, the brothers were following in Reuven's footsteps, he is witnessing the consequences of his own action - he sees how his brothers treat Joseph, thinking they can get away with it, which is a direct result of his action. They are making the same mistake he did 10 years before. Reuven subconsciously has taught them to act out of their own conclusions without consulting with their father or some other authority.
How about us?
Do we jump to conclusions and act out on our fears and anxieties, without thinking of the consequences the other party may have? Do we feed someone non-kosher food and he ends up liking it, and maybe later gets a job in non-kosher place and marries a non Jew. Have we introduced someone to try something they should of not and they have liked it and their life is not the same anymore.Have we mistreated someone in a synagogue, at work or someone we may have known while wearing a kippah and looking very or somewhat religious, and that person left the religion with a bad feeling toward the religious people, what will happen to all the generations that will come from him after this?
Think of your actions before you act, and most importantly think of the consequences of your actions.
Every Yom Kippur when we finish the Shmoneh Esreh of Shacharit and before starting the chazarah, in Sefardi sidurim there's a song, which goes like this: "Hashem Shamati Shim'akha Yareti Hashem."
It finishes off the song with these lines: "Hashem, sifrey chaim umetim lefonecha niftachim..." -- translation: "Hashem the Book of Living and the Book of Dead are open before You?" (Habakkuk 3:2)
I understand why Hashem would open the Book of Living, as it says in the in Masechet Rosh Hashanah 16b: "Rabbi Kruspedai said that Rabbi Yoḥanan said: Three books are opened on Rosh Hashanah before the Holy One, Blessed be He: One of wholly wicked people, and one of wholly righteous people, and one of middling people whose good and bad deeds are equally balanced. Wholly righteous people are immediately written and sealed for life; wholly wicked people are immediately written and sealed for death; and middling people are left with their judgment suspended from Rosh Hashanah until Yom Kippur, their fate remaining undecided. If they merit, through the good deeds and mitzvot that they perform during this period, they are written for life; if they do not so merit, they are written for death."
Besides writing the new people in the Book of Dead, Hashem judges those people that already passed away long time ago... why? Aren't the dead are gone and everything is forgotten?
No matter how many years passed from whatever incident you might of had, be it money, slander or something else. If the consequences of your actions, after many years still effect the people involved (see the Book of Chofetz Chaim - a story with a pillow), even generations later – you still get punished no matter where you are and what state you are in - dead or alive. It's just while you alive you still have an ability and a chance to repent and fix whatever the situation you have caused.
Understanding the magnitude of the situation and the consequences it has caused, Reuven was doing teshuvah 10 years after the incident – feeling his direct involvement on the treatment of Joseph and on all that came out of it.