With Rabbi Yisroel Newman.
JOSEPH, ON instruction of his father, visits his brothers who are shepherding Jacob’s flock in the city of Shechem (Nablus). The brothers, who despise Joseph, see him approaching from afar. They realise that, with no-one to see them, they can kill Joseph and concoct a tale that will be impossible to refute. Only Reuben protests. “Don’t shed any blood,” he says. “Throw him into this cistern here in the desert, but don’t lay a hand on him”.
The brothers agree to Reuben’s suggestion. They throw Joseph into an empty well and then sit down to eat a meal. In the midst of the meal they see an Arab caravan travelling to Egypt. Judah said to his brothers: “What will we gain if we kill our brother and cover his blood? Let’s sell him to the Arabs.”
The brothers consent. Joseph is sold and brought to Egypt as a slave, where, 13 years later, he will rise to become the prime minister. Reuben was not present during the sale – where was he? The Torah tells us that the brothers sold Joseph while in the midst of a meal. This irrelevant detail hints at the reason for Reuben’s absence. Reuben left because he could not eat with his brothers. Why?
Rashi says that Reuben had been dressing himself in sackcloth and fasting ever since he sinned against his father close to a decade earlier. When Rachel died, Jacob, who usually resided in her tent, moved his bed to the tent of Bilhah, her handmaid. For Reuben, Leah’s oldest son, this was a slap in the face of his sensitive mother. It was bad enough that Jacob preferred Rachel to her sister Leah, but intolerable he should prefer a handmaid to his mother.
He therefore moved Jacob’s bed from Bilhah’s tent to Leah’s. Although the incident happened nine years earlier, Reuben was still fasting and cleansing his heart from his intervention into his father’s intimate life. Today, too, many children and youngsters find them- selves at the edge of the abyss, physically or psycho- logically. Abuse, depression, anger, alienation, hopelessness and cynicism have overtaken many youngsters and plunged them into a bottomless pit, en route to an enslaved life.
Yet some of us are too occupied “fasting and repenting”, too busy perfecting ourselves spiritually, to reach out to these children and help them come out of their trenches. The Torah taught us that this attitude is the genesis of exile. When our brothers lie dying in pits of despair and alienation, we must cease all, lift them out of their pits and return them to their father who awaits their return.
Rabbi Yisroel Newman lives in New York and works as a part-time rabbi in New Jersey. He can be contacted via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.