From Where I Stand
By Rabbi Yossy Goldman
There is high drama in the Torah this week as we read the story of Yosef and his brothers. Technicolor dreamcoats, sibling rivalry, terrifying pits, and attempted fratricide dominate the parashah proceedings.
When the brothers plot to actually kill Yosef, Reuven, the eldest, makes a valiant effort to save Yosef’s life and suggests that instead they throw him into a pit. That would be sufficient to teach him a lesson, and no blood need be shed. In fact, according to Rashi, the Torah itself testifies that Reuven’s intention was to save Yosef from the pit.
But destiny had a different plan.
While Reuven was away, the brothers sold Yosef into slavery. When he returns to rescue him, the boy is gone and he rends his garments in grief.
But where was Reuven when the sale took place? Why wasn’t he there with his brothers at the time? Where did he suddenly disappear to?
Rashi gives two possible explanations: (1) It was his turn to go and serve his aged father. The brothers had a roster and Reuven’s time had come, so he was back at the ranch. (2) Reuven was busy doing teshuvah (repentance), with sackcloth and fasting, because he had interfered with his father’s sleeping arrangements (Bereishis 35:22).
I remember hearing the Lubavitcher Rebbe comment about the second opinion. According to this opinion, Reuven left Yosef in the pit to go and busy himself with “sackcloth and fasting,” that is, his own repentance for his sins. So let’s take a look and see what happens as a result. Reuven is absent, so Yosef is sold into slavery. He is sold and resold and eventually is taken down to Egypt. There he is imprisoned on false charges and, one day, rises to sudden prominence by successfully interpreting the Pharaoh’s dreams. He becomes viceroy of Egypt, then meets his long-lost brothers when they come searching for food during the famine. After revealing his true identity, he brings his father Yaakov and the entire family down to Egypt, where he supports and sustains them.
And that is precisely how the Jews became slaves in Egypt. It all started with Yosef being taken from the pit and sold to the Egyptians. Why? Because Reuven decided to be busy doing teshuvah! I remember the Rebbe thundering, “The whole Egyptian exile can be traced to Reuven’s ill-timed teshuvah! When a young Jewish boy is languishing in the pit, that is not the time for teshuvah. That is the time to save a Jewish child!”
Of course, teshuvah is a wonderful mitzvah. In a way, it is the greatest mitzvah of all, because it can repair the damage done by failing to observe all other mitzvos. And yet there is a time to do teshuvah and a time to save lives. And when a life is in danger, even teshuvah must wait.
The analogy of the Jewish child in the pit resonates powerfully today. It is not only about saving lives physically but also spiritually. How many millions of Jewish children are at risk spiritually? And how many Jews, indeed how many rabbis, become preoccupied with their own personal spiritual upliftment while ignoring the plight of young people “in the pits”?
It is a sobering thought and one that demands our earnest response. v
Rabbi Yossy Goldman was born in Brooklyn and was sent in 1976 by the Lubavitcher Rebbe as an emissary to serve the Jewish community of Johannesburg, South Africa. He is Senior Rabbi of the Sydenham Shul and president of the South African Rabbinical Association. His sefer “From Where I Stand: Life Messages from the Weekly Torah Reading” was published by Ktav and is available at Jewish book shops or online at www.ktav.com.