Reuben was the first-born son of the biblical patriarch Jacob. As the first born, in that era, and according to the Torah, he should have been the rightful heir to a double portion of inheritance (it was the right of the eldest), and he likewise should have had the leadership of the Jewish people descend from him (see Rashi on Gen. 49:3). Yet, when Jacob apportioned blessings to his descendants, in this week’s parashah, it was Joseph who received the double-portion due the eldest, by virtue of his two sons each receiving portions as full tribes, and Judah who was blessed to reign, with his descendants ultimately becoming the nation’s kings. The Torah does not explain why Judah and Joseph receive the blessings that were presumed to be for Reuben, nor does it state why Reuben lost the privileged status he would have enjoyed as the firstborn, as did the tribe that eventually bore his name.
In his blessing, Jacob alludes to an earlier incident in which Reuben seems to have attempted to assert and maintain his firstborn status through corrupt means, by some form of sexual dominance within the clan of Israel. Here, one cannot help but compare Reuben’s actions to that of Joseph, who, when tempted to commit a sexual indiscretion with his master Potiphar’s wife, which likely would have upheld his privileged status within the household, holds back from sin. Joseph holds to his moral clarity even knowing that the immediate consequences might well be detrimental to him (as they indeed were).
But Reuben himself appears to take the right and heroic path when he attempts to save Joseph from the brothers’ murderous intentions: he suggests that the brothers throw Joseph into a pit, instead of actively killing him. The biblical narrative explicitly details Reuben’s motivation, explaining that he intended to circle back later, extricate Joseph from the pit, and return him to their father. When he returns to discover that the pit is empty, he responds with anguish. It is at this point, however, that a close reading of the text points to a flaw in his thinking, despite his apparent good intentions. Namely, when Reuben rejoins his brothers, he says: “The boy is gone! Now, what am I to do?” (Gen 37:30, emphasis added).
Reuben is not concerned about Joseph’s well-being, or not primarily, but about his own standing, and how his father would presumably blame him for neglecting his younger brother,. Reuben had been anticipating Jacob’s praise for returning Joseph to him, as he had planned.
Reuben displays a related trait in the eventual encounter with Joseph, then unrecognizable to him in his attire as the viceroy of Egypt, when Joseph torments his brothers, accusing them of spying, and jails them. According to the biblical text, Reuben blames his brothers for their shared misfortune and berates them for not listening to him years earlier when he had advocated for sparing Joseph’s life:
Then Reuben spoke up and said to them, “Did I not tell you, ‘Do no wrong to the boy’? But you paid no heed. Now comes the reckoning for his blood.” (Gen. 42:23)
Reuben blames his brothers for not listening to his appeal to not harm Joseph. However, his statement at this time obfuscates his actual suggestion to his brothers, namely that they not kill Joseph before casting him into the pit, but throw him in alive. The narrative does not present Reuben as standing up to the brothers and objecting to their plot to do away with Joseph; rather, he comes across as equivocal: let us not spill his blood and directly cause his death, when instead we can leave him to die in this pit. Although the text informs the readers of Reuben’s true intention at the side of the pit, his recollection in the viceroy’s presence lays claim to a firm moral appeal that he had not made. Reuben berates his brothers for their handling of their brother as if he had appealed to them to spare Joseph’s life, shifting the responsibility to them for not heeding his words.
Reuben’s instinctive reaction – to accuse his brothers — recalls the events that led the first king of Israel, Saul, to lose the monarchy. When asked by the prophet Samuel why, against God’s explicit command, Saul had allowed the king of Amalek to live and the cattle to be taken as spoils, the king blames the people: he was merely following their lead. In his capitulation to the people’s unjustifiable demands and in his response when confronted with the fact that he had acceded to them, Saul demonstrates how unfit he is to rule. Rather than blaming the underlings around him for that which was under his own auspices, and rather than “leading” the people by telling them what they want to hear, a true leader takes ultimate responsibility. Saul was in the position of authority; he should have stood up to those under his leadership.
One final account involving Reuben cements the Torah’s narrative that points to his lack of fitness as a leader. In trying to convince a fearful Jacob to send Benjamin down to Egypt with them as the viceroy (Joseph) had demanded, Reuben offers to kill his own sons in recompense, if he were to fail to bring Benjamin home safely.
Then Reuben said to his father, “You may kill my two sons if I do not bring him back to you. Put him in my care, and I will return him to you.” (42:37)
This deal is counterproductive as far as Jacob is concerned, for, as noted by Rashi on this verse, causing more death in the family is no answer. Indeed, this misguided plea emphasizes Reuben’s inability to shoulder responsibility. His willingness to place his own sons – Jacob’s grandsons — in jeopardy demonstrates how he is unwilling to put himself on the line to save those for whom he, as ostensible leader, ought to take responsibility. In marked contrast to Reuben, Judah appeals to Jacob on pragmatic terms: if you do not put Benjamin at risk by sending him with us, the entire family will likely die from famine.
Send the boy in my care, and let us be on our way, that we may live and not die—you and we and our children. (43:8)
Where Reuben seeks to convince his father by offering some kind of blood oath that affirms his personal authority, Judah identifies what will best serve the Children of Israel for their long-term survival. Moreover, unlike Reuben, he is willing to shoulder full responsibility and bear the true consequences should he fail to bring Benjamin back.
I myself will be surety for him; you may hold me responsible: if I do not bring him back to you and set him before you, I shall stand guilty before you forever. (43:9)
The Torah makes it clear that Judah’s assurance was not empty words, for when Joseph accused Benjamin of theft, Judah offers himself in Benjamin’s place to be enslaved to Joseph or spend the rest of his life in prison for, as he explains, he personally guaranteed Benjamin’s safety to Jacob. Judah’s offer to be taken as a slave to Joseph reminds the Torah’s readers that it was he who proposed that the brothers sell Joseph as a slave.–The difference in Judah’s approach starkly demonstrated his ability to grow and atone for his past failings. Judah, who had suggested selling one of Rachel’s sons into slavery, offered to become a slave in order to save Rachel’s other son — and so the rest of the Children of Israel could return safely home.
Judah’s strengths in this moment do not surprise. His ability to grow and atone had already been demonstrated in an earlier incident, when he unwittingly committed a sexual indiscretion with his daughter-in-law, Tamar. Judah had demanded that she be executed for the very act he participated in, but when he was made aware of his own role, he immediately takes responsibility and publicly admits that he was in the wrong, and Tamar in the right. This admission forecasts the repentance of King David, descendant of Judah and Tamar. The king also commits a sexual sin, and ultimately admits to having committed a serious wrong; he takes responsibility for his actions. In sharp contrast to his predecessor, King Saul, David’s monarchy is never taken away from his family.
What are the core characteristics that we ought to look for in a leader? The Torah indicates the fundamental, vital traits that one who leads the Jewish people must have, as presented in these accounts. The true leader is able to take responsibility and not reflexively deflect accountability or blame others for failures. The true leader has the strength of character and moral clarity to do what is right, even at the risk of harm to one’s reputation, position, or even life. Not only must a leader have the good judgment to do what is in the best interest of the people, but a leader must be able to will stand up to those who make demands that are corrupt or unjust. The true leader knows better than to try to assert and maintain power by any means. Crucially, the Torah does not merely present lofty ideals, but portrays these qualities as embodied by flawed human beings whose acts of leadership, guided by Divine Providence, drive the course of biblical history.
The question of who is fit to lead has taken on increased urgency in recent years, given the political upheaval in the State of Israel over the last several years, and the grave dangers currently facing Israel. May we merit leaders who protect and lead the people of Israel, with a clear sense of personal responsibility and public accountability, moral strength, and generosity of spirit. Reuben, in the natural position of leadership as the firstborn, did not possess these traits; his brothers, Judah and Joseph, respectively, did.