Vayayshev: Reuben, the Failed Firstborn

“The brothers saw Joseph from afar, but as he was approaching them, they were conspiring to kill him. They said to one another, ‘Here comes that dreamer! Come, let us murder him.’ But Reuben, the Firstborn, ordered them, ‘Do not spill his blood! Throw him into one of the dry desert-pits, but do not hurt him’—planning to later rescue Joseph and return him to his father. However, in Reuben’s absence, the brothers sold Joseph as a slave to the Midianites. …Later, when Reuben returned to the pit and Joseph was gone, Reuben tore his clothes and lamented, ‘The boy is gone! And I, whither shall I flee, for I have failed in my duty to protect him?’”
–Gen. 37:18-28

As firstborn, I did try to lead and direct my stubborn and headstrong brothers. Again and again, I attempted to assert my leadership, but never failed to fail. They were a headstrong bunch, and each one thought they knew better than I about what to do in any situation. I took time to consider the options; others, like Judah, Levi, and Shimon, leapt to conclusions, no matter how dangerous or foolish, and devil take the hindmost.

Sadly, my most lasting effect on the destiny of my unwieldy and confused family—sons of official wives, sons of rejected wives, and sons of concubines—was my delivery of mandrakes. They were a fertility aid, we believed; I had intended them for my own dear, rejected mother, Leah. Auntie Rachel was so desperate to bear a son, however, that she bargained with my mother for the plants. It all came to nothing for Rachel, however; God decreed that she remain infertile. He caused my mother became pregnant, however, without the aid of the “plants of fertility.”

More recently, I tried to rise to the occasion when all of us boys were shepherding Papa Jacob’s cattle in the wilderness. I looked up at the horizon—you could see clear to the end of the flat earth out there, truly. And whom did I spy, approaching from a distance? Our spoiled-brat baby brother, Joseph—coming to snoop on us, doubtless.

Well, my brothers were infuriated. There we were, out in God’s country, and that little snip was following us, even to the ends of the earth, it seemed! When he entered our camp, waving and smiling, none of us returned his greeting. Instead, without a word, Shimon and Levi seized the little scamp and, before I could protest—I was the oldest, after all—they had bound his hands and were shouting, “Here’s the snitching little dream-master, himself! Come, Boys, and we’ll kill him—then, we’ll see what comes of his dreams.”

I was panicking inside, but I had to control my murderous brothers. If Joseph did not return from his day-hike, what would Papa say? I would be the one bearing the blame, not those hotheads, Shimon and Levi—though the others were baying for Joseph’s blood, too.

“Brothers!” I shouted, and, when they had quieted down somewhat—in those days, I still held the authority, being the firstborn, “What will it avail us to kill him—though I share your sentiments?” (Nothing wrong with pretending that I wished to kill him, as well.) “Do not lay a hand on the boy—instead, toss his worthless carcass into one of those dry desert pits—wouldn’t that be better? Give us time to map out a stratagem? Please?”

Luckily, my steady and reliable brothers—ha!—had not yet cracked open the clay jugs of honey-mead that Issachar and Zebulun, those drunkards, had sneaked into the caravan when our eagle-eyed Papa turned his back. We had an unwritten covenant not to take strong drink until the sun went down; then, we would build a great bonfire to keep the jackals away. After a long day of chasing sheep and goats around the desert, it felt good to sit around the fire in the cold desert night and warm our bodies. The mead warmed us as well, but not in a good way.

What happened next was entirely my fault—I own up to my error. I had to go off into the desert on a briefly, because I believed that I was turning prophet. It’s true: please don’t laugh. I had heard voices in my mind which I mistakenly took for the Voice of God instructing me, or, at least, one of His angels, but He played me false. It was none other than Asmodeus, the Wilderness-Demon, fooling me into believing that I had become some sort of seer. Well, can you blame me? As the eldest son of Jacob, himself a prophet—remember the Ladder of Angels and the God-wrestling at the River Yabbok? Well, then, could I not deem myself a prophet as well? The blood of other great prophets, Isaac and the legendary Abraham, flowed in my veins. In the end, it was all for naught: that foul fiend Asmodeus led me a merry chase in the desert-dark, until I tripped over a palm-tree root and smacked my head on a rock.
When I awoke, I was certain that God had finally sent an angel to help me. Shakily, I made my way back to the camp, dizzy from my fall. As I approached, I could hear singing—what was that all about?

Asmodeus whispered in my ear: “There, Friend Reuben: your brothers are joyfully welcoming you, their leader, back.”

“Get thee hence, Demon!” I said angrily, “That sound is not the sound of war, nor of praising God; it is a drunken paean that rents the heavens!”

I was right, for a change: my brothers, the fools, were celebrating—what? As soon as I stumbled into the firelight, Shimon, that lout, thrust a ‘skin at me. I could smell the liquor on his breath.

“Here, Eldest Brother Reuben,” he slurred, “Take and drink. For our troubles are over.”

“What—why—?” I said, not comprehending.

I felt a beastly-hard slap on my back, and turned angrily, only to see Judah’s leering face.

“Shimon is right, Brother Reuben,” he grinned, “Congratulate me—for, under my leadership, we have disposed of that coyote’s whelp, once and for all.”

“Joseph—?” I asked, and my heart sank within me, “Where is Joseph? You know that I am responsible for him, Judah—not you. No, never you.”

His grin turned to a scowl. With a drunkard’s skill at speaking slowly and carefully choosing his words, he replied, “Where were you, Reuben? You disappeared, that’s what you did! Were you in the caverns down under the earth, or, perhaps, in the depths of the sea? No matter: you were gone. And so, the Boys and I made—other arrangements. We—”
“What-did-you-DO?” I screamed, and raced to the edge of the pit into which we had thrown Joseph. It was empty. I turned to Judah and seized him by the throat. “Where is our little brother, Joseph? Do you know, you fool, that I alone am responsible for all of you? What have you done with him? How shall I face our father?” I dropped to the ground, and, mourning and crying, scraped handfuls of dirt on my head. “Where shall I go? Whither shall I fly? I cannot go home, no, never!”

The boys stood around me, laughing like fools and passing the ‘skin around.

“We sold him,” said Levi, briefly, “for twenty pieces of silver. Here is your share.” He tossed a shiny lump of metal at me; it hit me on the forehead, right where I had hurt myself during my desert foray. The wound stung; it set off my temper.

I leapt to my feet and grabbed the front of Levi’s robe, squeezing it until he started to gag.

“Sold? As what, and to whom, you young sot?”

“To the Ishmaelites,” said Judah, with that huge grin pasted on his face. I wanted to hit him or, better, stab him to death.

“No,” said a voice from the circle, “I believe that they were Midianites.”

“Let me spell it out for you,” I hissed, “If you can but remember which caravan it was (Really, caravans passed by Dothan all the time), then, perhaps, we have a chance of heading them off, giving back the money, and taking Joseph back.”

“Why should we?” asked Levi, “He is of no use to us.” He carefully spat on the ground at my feet. Lifting up a hand, he carefully showered down the coins, laughing like a fool.

“Here, Reuben,” said Judah, in a quiet but menacing voice—he had made himself into the de facto leader, while I stood there gaping—”I have a plan to convince Papa that Joseph is dead. Favorite son, indeed—Dan!” Dan was not the brightest of us, but a willing dupe for anyone who needed him—“Go fetch a calf, slaughter it, and collect the blood in a bucket. Naphtali! Put down that mead-skin, you drunkard, and fetch me the brat’s Coat of Many Colors. Ha! Let us see how much its rich colors gleam, once enough animal blood soaks into it. Where’s that calf, Dan? Dan!”

And so it was done. I am no longer leader, if I ever was one. Judah has taken over. Whither shall I flee? Where can I go, with Joseph gone?

About the Author
David was born and raised on NYC's Lower East Side, and attended Hebrew Day School, Yeshiva Univ. HS, and Yeshiva Univ., where he learned English, Bible, and Jewish Education degrees. He attended the CUNY Graduate Center, and received both an MA and M.Phil. in English Literature, with a concentration in 17th Century, John Milton, and the Romantic Poets. David also received semicha/rabbinical ordination from the Academy for Jewish Religion, Yonkers, NY. He has also attended the Hebrew College in Brookline, MA, where he received a Certificate in Advanced Hebrew School Administration. David serves Temple Sholom of Pompano Beach, FL; prior, he served pulpits in Warren, NJ, Fayetteville, NC, and Portsmouth, NH. He is married, with two grown children and a Shih Tzu.
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