Joseph was a brat. He was egotistical, so full of himself, a true prima donna. Joseph would become a great leader in his own right, a true hero of the Jewish people. But, at the age of 17, he was obnoxious and a horror to be around.
That’s why his brothers decided to act. They tired of his boasting and his ego; enough was enough! When the brothers saw him approaching, they conspired to kill him. Yet, one brother stood up and disagreed with the others. The Torah tells us that Reuben saved Joseph. Except that isn’t true. Reuben didn’t follow through; he didn’t actually save Joseph.
Reuben had good intentions. He saw that his brothers were filled with vengeance. He tried to soothe them with words and calm them down. He says to his brothers: “Shed no blood! Cast him into that pit in the wilderness, but do not touch him yourselves!” Reuben convinces his brothers that they shouldn’t kill Joseph, but Reuben doesn’t act. He leaves Joseph naked in the pit, all by himself.
What I find most interesting is that the Torah tells us what Reuben is thinking. “I’ll save him and restore him to his father” (Genesis 37:22). Reuben knows what he’s supposed to do. He has the best of intentions, but when the moment comes to act, he hesitates. And in that hesitation comes devastation.
We’re not sure what happens to Reuben, but he decides to leave the camp. Perhaps he was going to warn his father or buy supplies or think of an escape plan. In the meantime, a caravan of Midianites comes by, and the brothers sell Joseph into slavery. When Reuben returns, he sees that Joseph is gone.
Reuben is a person who wishes to do the right thing. He even speaks up, but when push comes to shove, he doesn’t follow through. Perhaps he was terrified to stand up to his brothers and do the right thing. He might have lacked confidence and became incapable of acting. Whatever the reason, his inaction caused great harm.
Reuben had great potential, but his potential went unfulfilled. He had the chance to be one of the greatest heroes of the Torah, to rescue his brother. Yet, in a moment of hesitation, he failed to act. Every day, we too are called upon. Whether it’s our family, our friends or the stranger who surrounds us, we are asked to stand up and act. Reuben reminds us that we often have only one chance to do the right thing. When that moment comes, may we garner our potential and do our part to bring healing and peace to our world.
Rabbi Andy Gordon is spiritual leader at Bolton Street Synagogue.