Saturday, December 17, 2011

Vayeishev - Reuben's "Immunity" from Jealousy

Throughout the generations, the commentaries have struggled to shed light on the difficult story of the sale of Joseph into slavery by his brothers. On the one hand, the Torah and the Sages clearly present the sale of Joseph as a grave sin. Yet, on the other hand, we know that the brothers were extraordinarily holy and righteous men. On the contrary, the midrash (Bamidbar Rabba 13:18) tells us that, while we would usually expect such a sin only on the part of wicked men, in fact the brothers were completely righteous and never sinned except in this one case. Indeed, even later, when they recognized that they had sinned in their treatment of Joseph, they initially thought that they had only sinned in their failure to be more compassionate towards their young brother, but they still believed that, in principle, they had acted correctly. The brothers had come to the conclusion that Joseph was a false prophet and an unscrupulous seeker of power who was a threat to the future of the Jewish people. Only God - Who sees into the depths of the human heart - knew, as He tells us in the Torah, that their judgement was influenced by jealousy and hatred.

There was, however, one exception. The Torah tells us that Reuben, the firstborn of the brothers, recognized that they were doing something wrong, and he did all he could to rescue Joseph. What was it about Reuben that enabled him to overcome the insidious effects of the jealousy that had corrupted the judgement of his brothers?

The Sages tell us that, at this time, Reuben was in a state of repentance for having dishonored his father. In his recognition of his sin, Reuben realized that, by strict justice, he was no longer worthy of being counted among the sons of Jacob.
R' Aaron Kotler
Thus, Reuben's reaction to the dreams of Joseph, in which all eleven brothers submitted to the authority of Joseph, was very different from his brothers. He saw these dreams as proof that he would continue to be a member of the family of Jacob despite his sin.

Rabbi Aaron Kotler (d. 1962) points out that it was the extraordinary humility engendered by his repentance that enabled Reuben to see Joseph in very different light than his brothers. In his recognition of his own failures, there was no place for jealousy to take hold and Reuben, alone of his brothers, was able to recognize the truth.

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