We, Truly, Make a Difference: VaYeishev
VaYeishev: Genesis 37:1 – 40:23
Reuben is a character that is mostly overlooked in these weeks’ Torah portions dominated by the stories of Jacob and Joseph. Reuben is Jacob’s firstborn son, from his first wife, Leah. Technically, he is the one in line to inherit the Abrahamic promise from his father, and the one through which the lineage must continue. Only technically, though. Jacob’s marriage to Leah was the result of a trick his father-in-law played on him, forcing him to marry his firstborn daughter before allowing him to marry Rachel, his second born, whom Jacob loved and desired. Leah is the unloved, unwanted first wife of Jacob; Rachel is the love of his life.
Rachel’s firstborn son is Joseph; and—as we learn from the beginning of this week’s Torah portion—Jacob “loved Joseph best of all his sons… and he made him a coat of many colors. When his brothers saw that he was the one their father loved, more than any of his brothers, they hated him…” [Gen. 37:3-4]
Reuben’s relationship to Joseph was most complicated. On the one hand Joseph was Reuben’s direct rival when it came to family preeminence, which gave him an added reason to hate him. On the other hand, as the eldest son, Reuben was responsible to his father for Joseph’s and all the brothers’ well-being. This complex relationship comes to a head in this week’s Torah portion as the brothers, fueled by their hatred and jealousy, resolve to kill Joseph. “But when Reuben heard it, he saved him from their hands saying: ‘Let us not take his life… Shed no blood! Cast him into this pit, [here] in the wilderness, but do not lay a hand against him’—intending to save him from them and restore him to his father.” [Gen. 37:21-22] At first, the brothers obey. But no sooner than Reuben’s back is turned, do they sell Joseph to a passing caravan of slave dealers on its way down to Egypt. “When Reuben returned to the pit and saw that Joseph was not in the pit, he rent his clothes” as a sign of deep grieving and, believing that Joseph was dead, cried out: “The boy is gone; where am I to go?” [Gen.37:29-30]
Reuben’s despair at the thought of Joseph’s death is deeply moving, especially knowing that he had the most to benefit from his step-brother’s disappearance. But that doesn’t even enter Reuben’s consciousness. His single focus was that his standing up for what was right—saving Joseph’s life—ended in failure. He wasn’t able to prevail and create change. Joseph had died. The reader knows, however, that Reuben’s intervention had immeasurable impact. Indeed, according to the story, saving Joseph changes the course of history.
And so, perhaps, this can be seen as a metaphor for all of us. So many of us are working to impact change, to make a difference. Seldom do we see the results of our hard work and are able to celebrate our victories. Often we despair at how little change we actually witness with our own eyes. Perhaps we, like Reuben, are attached to a certain outcome, and are often blind to seeing results when change manifests itself in ways we don’t expect or recognize. Perhaps what we set in motion ends up bearing fruit only after we have already moved on. We made a difference, yet we don’t know we have. But this not knowing need never prevent us from doing what is right; and neither should our being met with resistance, anger or even contempt.
What we learn from Reuben, ultimately, is that “right action” is always egoless. Had he listened to his ego he would have sided with his brothers and killed Joseph. But when our ego is set aside, the place from which we act is always a place of compassion and care. Operating from this place, the fullest integrity of our being is allowed to express. We let go of our need to control the outcome, and make our actions a true offering of selfless love. And that, more than anything else, is what truly makes a difference.