Reuven and Yehuda

  • Rabbanit Sharon Rimon
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion

This parasha series is dedicated
Le-zekher Nishmat HaRabanit Chana bat HaRav Yehuda Zelig zt"l.




This shiur is dedicated in loving memory of Pesa Wolfowicz, z"l,
on the occasion of her yahrzeit, from the Okon family.

This shiur is dedicated in memory of Lena (Leah bat Yitzchak) Fuchs whose yahrzeit is on bet Tevet.


Reuven and Yehuda

By Rabbanit Sharon Rimon



Parashot Vayeshev, Miketz, and Vayigash deal with Yaakov's sons and the relationships between them.  One of the issues that comes to the surface is that of leadership.  In I Divrei Ha-yamim 5 the subject is summarized in the following words:


"The sons of Reuven – the firstborn of Israel (for he was the firstborn, but when he defiled his father's bed his birthright was given to the children of Yosef, son of Israel, but not the actual firstborn status;

For Yehuda prevailed over his brothers, and rulership emerged from him, but the birthright was given to Yosef."


These verses describe the birthright being taken from Reuven and transferred to Yosef and Yehuda.  Yosef is given the birthright in terms of inheritance (i.e., the double portion usually given to the firstborn), while Yehuda is given leadership.


Why are these firstborn privileges taken from Reuven? According to verse 1, it is because of the episode of Bilha that the birthright is given to Yosef.  But why is leadership bestowed upon Yehuda? Here the reason is different: "For Yehuda prevailed over his brothers, and rulership emerged from him." Yehuda acquired leadership quite naturally from his brothers.  The transfer of leadership from Reuven to Yehuda was not the result of Reuven's sin with Bilha, but rather a reflection of Yehuda's greater suitability for leadership than Reuven.[1]


Let us examine two incidents that demonstrate the respective leadership of Yehuda and of Reuven, and try to understand the leadership style of each of them – or the differences between them.  This may help us to understand why "Yehuda prevailed over his brothers" and was bequeathed the leadership role.


The Sale of Yosef


Bereishit 37:

(18) They saw him from afar, and before he drew near to them they plotted against him to kill him.

(19) They said to one another, Here comes that dreamer.

(20) Now come, let us kill him and cast him into some pit, and we shall say that a wild beast devoured him; then we shall see what will become of his dreams.


The brothers conspire to kill Yosef.  How do the two "leaders," Yehuda and Reuven, respond?


Yehuda offers no response at this stage.  Reuven hears of the plan and immediately tries to save Yosef:


(21) Reuven heard it and he sought to save him from their hands, saying: Let us not take his life.


From this verse it is clear that it is Reuven who saves Yosef from a certain death.  Were it not for his immediate intervension, Yosef would have been killed there and then.[2]


The verse also covertly conveys another message.  The verse starts with the words, "Reuven heard [of it]."  From here we deduce that Reuven was not really a participant in the discussion among the brothers.  He stands on the sidelines and hears them talking.  This would indicate the possibility that there was a certain distance, or lack of partnership, between Reuven and his brothers.


The brothers seek to kill Yosef, and Reuven tells them:


"Let us not take his life." Do the brothers listen to him?


In the next verse there is no response on the part of the brothers, but rather another utterance by Reuven.  This fact tells us that the brothers did not listen to him, and therefore Reuven was forced to speak again in an attempt to persuade them to adopt a different plan:[3]


(22) Reuven said to them: Do not spill blood; cast him into this pit that is in the wilderness, but do not lay a hand upon him (so that he could save him from their hands, in order to restore him to his father).


What is Reuven telling his brothers?


Firstly, he is trying to persuade them that killing Yosef will be regarded as a sin on their part.  Therefore he tells them, "Do not spill blood." Secondly, he proposes an alternative: instead of killing Yosef with their own hands, they should cast him into a pit.


Reuven's suggestion here represents a different approach from the one that he proposed before.  Now, he seemingly agrees with the brothers, agreeing with their idea of killing Yosef, but suggesting that it be done in a "cleaner" way: Yosef will die by himself, in the pit.  The brothers will thereby achieve two objectives. On one hand, Yosef will be dead.  On the other hand, they will not be directly responsible for the death; they will not have killed him with their own hands, but rather will have caused his death indirectly, and this will not be considered has spilling blood.


Reuven's true intention was to save Yosef from the pit, as the Torah testifies.  But because the brothers do not listen to him and he is unsuccessful in standing up to them to prevent outright murder, he is forced to make an indirect proposal.  He seemingly accepts their position, agrees to their plan, but suggests a "better" alternative in the hope that they will find it acceptable.


Do the brothers now accept his opinion? 


(23) And it was, when Yosef came to his brothers, that they stripped Yosef of his coat, the striped coat that was upon him.

(24) And they took him and cast him into the pit, and the pit was empty; there was no water in it.


The brothers accepted Reuven's suggestion.  They do not kill Yosef, but rather cast him into the pit – just as Reuven had suggested.  But attention should be paid to the fact that the brothers do not respond verbally to Reuven.  Even the text omits noting, "His brothers listened to him," or, "They cast him into the pit as Reuven had said."  There is no utterance that expresses any attention on the part of the brothers to his words.


The story continues:


(25) They sat down to eat bread, and they lifted their eyes and saw, and behold – a caravan of Ishmaelites was coming from Gilad, with camels bearing gum balm and ladanum on their way to take it down to Egypt.

(26) And Yehuda said to his brothers: What profit is it if we kill our brother and cover his blood?

(27) Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and let our hand not be upon him, for he is our brother, our flesh.  And the brothers listened to him.


The brothers sit down to eat bread, and when the Ishmaelites appear, Yehuda says: "What profit is it if we kill our brother?" From these words it is clear that the brothers are still intending to kill Yosef! Reuven was unsuccessful in deterring them from this plan.  The brothers were not prepared to hear him and Reuven was not strong enough to stand up to them.  He folded and, at least outwardly, accepted their position – that they should kill Yosef – but suggested a "cleaner" way of doing so.  Therefore, when the brothers cast Yosef into the pit and sit down to eat bread, they are still expecting Yosef to die.


The story could now take off in a number of different directions: It is possible that the brothers would have left Yosef to die in the pit; Reuven would have saved him without their knowledge, and then perhaps there would have been another struggle with the brothers trying to kill Yosef.  Or perhaps the brothers would have waited close to the pit to see him die, not allowing Reuven to save him.  Then, either Yosef would have died in the pit, or the brothers would have ensured his death, by either direct or indirect means.


However, the story ends differently, in the wake of Yehuda's intervention.  Let us examine Yehuda's words, and his relationship with his brothers:


a.         Yehuda sits with his brothers to eat bread.  His suggestion to them is also prefaced with the words, "Yehuda said to his brothers…."  Clearly, he is part of the group; he is not an outsider.  This fact stands out against the background of the relations between Reuven and the brothers.  At the beginning of the story the brothers "said to each other… come, let us kill him" – they are unanimous in their intention;[4] Reuven is not party to their discussion, but rather hears from the sidelines and intervenes: "Reuven heard of it, and [sought to] save him from their hand."  Now, too, with the brothers sitting together to eat, Reuven is not with them – as we shall see from the continuation of the story.

b.         Yehuda speaks in the first person; he includes himself together with them: "What profit is it if we kill our brother and we cover his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and let our hand not be upon him, for he is our brother, our flesh." Reuven, in contrast, spoke in the second person: "Do not spill (al tishpekhu) blood; cast (hashlikhu) him into the pit… but do not lay (al tishlechu) a hand upon him." Reuven does not count include himself within the company of the brothers.

c.         The content of his words: Yehuda starts by asking, "What profit is it if we kill our brother."  Rashi explains: "'What profit' – i.e., what monetary gain." Ibn Ezra: "What benefit."  According to both commentators, Yehuda tells his brothers that they will gain nothing by killing Yosef.  Afterwards, he suggests: "Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites."  Having clarified to them that there will be no profit from killing Yosef, he presents a profitable solution: selling him.  This will earn them real money.


Yehuda's suggestion is shocking: he is relating to the killing or selling of his brother in terms of monetary profit and loss! Seemingly, if it were more profitable to kill Yosef, then that is what he would advocate!


But after mentioning the consideration of profit, he also invokes the moral consideration: "Let our hand not be upon him, for he is our brother, our flesh."


Why does Yehuda mention this moral concern only at the end?

According to the order of his speech, one might think that the consideration of profit is of greater importance to him, and therefore he mentions it first.  However, we may also understand this differently: Yehuda seeks to persuade his brothers.  Therefore he does not start by preaching to them, for this will likely cause them to distance themselves from him and to close their ears and their hearts to his argument.  Rather, he starts with an argument that they will be prepared to hear.  Hence, he starts by presenting the "profit" consideration, and only afterwards introduces the moral issue.  Thus he succeeds in persuading the brothers to accept his plan.


Reuven, in contrast, starts with the moral case.  While this testifies to his significant moral stand, it may be that his choice to approch the situation from this angle is what caused the brothers to close their ears.  Later on, in order to save Yosef, Reuven is forced to backtrack, as it were, from his moral stand and to agree to the idea of killing Yosef, suggesting only that it be done in an indirect way.  This withdrawal from a moral stand is dishonorable, and the brothers do not identify with his words.


In order to persuade people it is not sufficient to hold a meaningful and just position; one has to know how to present one's case in such a way as to enter people's hearts, without arousing opposition.  Yehuda was successful in this; Reuven failed.


d. Close attention to Yehuda's words reveals an interesting phenomenon: twice, in referring to Yosef, he mentions the word "acheinu" – our brother.  This word appears both at the beginning of his speech, as he presents the "profit" argument, and at the end, when he speaks of the moral issue.  From the outset he creates the sense that they are talking about "our brother."  This feeling is further reinforced when he says, "For he is our brother, our flesh."  Yehuda introduces into his words an emotion that has so far not featured, and it touches the brothers' hearts.


Attention should be paid to the fact that the word "brother" (ach) appears four times in the two verses that record Yehuda's words.  Twice it is used to describe the relations between Yehuda and his brothers, and twice Yehuda refers to Yosef as "our brother."  It would seem that fraternity is one of the important motifs in Yehuda's behavior and speech.  This, apparently, is one of the most influential factors in persuading his brothers.  The sense of Yehuda's partnership with them causes the brothers to listen to him, and the fact that he includes Yosef within this partnership, calling him "our brother," leads them to see Yosef in a different light: he is not their enemy, but their brother.


According to the above, it would seem that the fact that Yehuda starts his speech with the profit motive is matter of tactics rather than one of principle.  The profit motive is not Yehuda's primary concern, but he uses it as a means to persuade the brothers.


Reuven, in contrast, does not address the sense of fraternity at all.  He does not call Yosef "our brother."  Just as he is removed from the other brothers, so he is removed from Yosef.  While his words about saving him are moral, they are devoid of emotion.  And his words fail to enter his brothers' hearts.


e. Result: Yehuda's words are accepted by the brothers, and the Torah takes pains to emphasize this: "His brothers listened to him." Against the background of this emphasis, the failure of the brothers to listen to Reuven stands out all the more starkly.


After the brothers are convinced by Yehuda, they sell Yosef.


(29) Reuven returned to the pit, and behold – Yosef was not in the pit, and he rent his garments.

(30) And he returned to his brothers and said: The child is gone; and as for me – where shall I go?


From these verses it becomes clear that Reuven did not sit with his brothers to eat, nor was he present at the time of the sale.  Therefore he is altogether shocked when he returns to the pit with the intention of saving Yosef, only to discover that Yosef is not there.  The commentators offer various possibilities as to his whereabouts during this time.  Some explain that he was not with his brothers because he had gone to attend to his father; others suggest that he did not eat with them because he was fasting over his sin with Bilha.[5]


In any event, the fact that Reuven was not with the brothers during the meal testifies to his severance from them.  Reuven, as we have already seen, is not one of the group; he does not regard himself as being included together with the rest of the brothers.  He is not party to their discussions, nor to their meals together.  While this situation does have its advantages – he is not party to their evil counsel – his distance from the brothers is a factor in their not accepting his words.


Actually, the fact that Reuven is not together with his brothers at this critical time is most surprising.  If Reuven sees that his brothers seek to kill Yosef, he knows that he has not succeeded in deterring them and they still want Yosef dead, how can he leave the scene at such a fateful moment? At any second something could happen that would change everything! Admittedly, he intends to save Yosef – but if he would take real responsibility for his brother's fate, he would sit with the brothers and take part in their discussion, in order to avoid a rekindling of violent intent, in order to avoid any undesirable development that may harm Yosef.  Reuven's absence at these critical moments testifies to the fact that he does not follow his fraternal responsibility to the end.  Ultimately, when Reuven comes to the pit and discovers that Yosef is gone, he tears his clothes and suffers great remorse – but over what? Over himself: "And as for me – where shall I go?" This is a very harsh description.  Yosef has disappeared.  Reuven does not yet know what has become of him, and instead of crying over Yosef's fate, he cries for himself!


What do the brothers reply to Reuven? Perhaps they tell him that they have sold Yosef, but the text gives no indication of this.  According to the text, the brothers offer no response to Reuven's anguish.  They do not respond to his pain.  The next verse already describes the ruse: they will dip Yosef's coat into blood, and send it to their father.  The brothers prepare an alibi, to absolve themselves of responsibility.  Admittedly, the brothers are engaging in an act that matches Reuven's line of thought: Reuen now has no idea how he is to approach his father, how he can take responsibility for the act.  The brothers do something that will relieve Reuven – and all of them – of responsibility.  But the text does not describe any explicit reaction by the brothers to Reuven's words.  It is as if they are saying to him, "Is that what you're worried about? That's no problem.  We can easily absolve you of all responsibility for what happened."


In Parashat Miketz, several years later, when the brothers come to Egypt to buy food and Yosef – as the second-to-the-king – subjects them to unusual trials and demands, we read of a discussion among the brothers recalling the sale:


Bereishit 42:

(21) They said to one another: But we are guilty for our brother, for we saw his torment, when he begged us and we did not listen; therefore this trouble has come upon us.

(22) And Reuven answered them, saying: Did I not speak to you, saying: Do not sin against the boy – but you did not listen, and now his blood is required.


Once again we are witness to a conversation among the brothers, with the expression, "They said to one another" recalling their earlier conspiray to kill Yosef, which was introduced with the same words.  In both cases the brothers "say to one another," and in both cases Reuven is an onlooker; he is not party to the discussion, and he offers a comment from the outside.


In recalling the sale of Yosef, the brothers describe the event in emotional language: they mention Yosef's pleading and their own cruelty towards him.  It seems that they view this as the most serious aspect of the crime, as Ramban explains: "They regard their own cruelty as deserving of greater punishment than the sale, for their brother – their own flesh – was begging and pleading with them, but they had no mercy…."


The text takes pains to emphasize, in the brothers' words, "We are guilty for our brother."  It was Yehuda who had inculcated in them the feeling that Yosef was their brother, and that it was therefore proper for them to have mercy on him.  Now, as they recall the event many years later, their attitude towards the event is still colored by Yehuda's view of it: He is our brother, ourflesh, and we did not have pity on him.  Although we did not kill him, we sinned towards him.


Reuven's reaction is interesting.  Firstly, he is removed from the company of the brothers: "Reuven answered them"; he is not party to the preceding communal breast-beating.  The brothers feel guilty for their cruelty towards Yosef, and Reuven does not share in this sense of guilt (after all, he tried to save Yosef, and he had no part in the sale!).  Rather, he stands apart and tells them: "I told you so!" A person who makes such a statement has no empathy for what the other person is going through; all he wants is to have it on record that he was right.  Once again, the chasm separating Reuven from the other brothers is revealed.


Once again, Reuven empahsizes the spilling of blood as a sin that hovers over the brothers, and once again he makes no reference to any emotional connection to Yosef.  The brothers echo Yehuda's stance – "He is our brother" – while Reuven repeats his own previous position – "Do not spill blood."


Another significant aspect to Reuven's words is the fact that he himself declares, "You did not listen."  This serves to reinforce our understanding that at first Reuven had tried to prevent the killing of Yosef, and only after he was ignored did he suggest that Yosef be cast into the pit.[6] Here Reuven explicitly states that the brothers did not listen to him, and this highlights the difference between himself and Yehuda, conerning whom we read: "His brothers listened."



The Guarantee to Bring Binyamin Home


The brothers return home from Egypt and describe to their father how the Egyptian ruler treated them, with his demand that they bring Binyamin with them the next time they go. What is Yaakov’s reaction?

Bereishit 42:

(36) Yaakov their father said to them: You have bereaved me; Yosef is gone, Shimon is gone, and you want to take Binyamin; all of this has come upon me!

This is not a categorical refusal to allow Binyamin to go; it is, rather, an expression of sorrow and of fear for the possible outcome.


Reuven responds immediately to his father’s words in an attempt to persuade him:

(37) Reuven spoke to his father, saying: Slay my two sons if I do not bring him to you; give him into my hand and I shall return him to you.

Reuven offers to take responsibility for Binyamin’s safe return. Does Yaakov accept this offer?

(38) And he said: My son shall not go down with you, for his brother is dead and he alone remains; if any accident should happen to him on the way in which you go, you will have sent down my grey hair with sorrow to Sheol.


Reuven meant to persuade Yaakov to send Binyamin, but his words have the opposite effect. Before Reuven spoke up, Yaakov merely expressed sorrow and his reservations. Now, he refuses explicitly to allow Binyamin to go, “He said: My son shall not go down with you.” Reuven’s offer has brought about a hardening of Yaakov’s stance, instead of a softening. Later on, however, Yehuda succeeds in persuading his father to send Binyamin with them. Why is this so? Does Yaakov not trust Reuven? Or is Reuven’s timing perhaps not propitious? Perhaps it is his suggestion itself that is problematic?


In the next shiur, focusing on Parashat Vayigash, we shall address the issue of the guarantor for Binyamin at length. This episode has its beginnings in Parashat Miketz, in the acceptance of responsibility, but it continues into Parashat Vayigash, where the responsibility is realized.


Summary thus far:

In the story of the sale of Yosef, and in its recollection by the brothers many years later, when they find themselves in trouble in Egypt, we discover some of the qualities of Reuven and of Yehuda as leaders. Both take responsibility and try to save Yosef. It is Reuven who responds first, and by virtue of his immediate intervention Yosef is saved from a certain death. At the same time, however, it is clear that the brothers do not listen to him, and he himself testifies to this with the words, “Did I not speak to you, saying, Do not sin against the boy – but you did not listen, and now, behold, his blood is required.” Yehuda, in contrast, succeeds in persuading the brothers, and the verse confirms this: “His brothers listened.” Yehuda’s style of speech is far more convincing than Reuven’s style is.


Another difference between them concerns their relationship with the rest of their brothers. It seems that Reuven is somewhat disconnected and distanced from his brothers, while Yehuda sits in their midst; he has a closer relationship with them, and thus he is more successful in influencing them. The fraternal relations between Yehuda and his brothers is of great significance, and Yehuda manages to arouse and inculcate in his brothers a sense of fraternity towards Yosef, too.


 In next week’s shiur we shall discuss the centrality of the sense of fratenity in Yehuda’s leadership, among his other special leadership qualities, all of which helped him to overcome his brothers and to receive the blessing of leadership.



Translated by Kaeren Fish


[1]  As Rashi comments ad loc: "Even if Reuven had not defiled Yaakov's bed and the birthright had not been taken from him, Yehuda would still be the best suited to rule."

[2]  See Makkot 10a

[3]  Concerning the phenomenon of one monologue following another – "He said… and he said…," see at length Rav Elchanan Samet, "When Did Reuven Say to His Brothers, 'Do Not Sin Against the Boy,' and They Did Not Listen to Him," in his Iyunim Be-Parashat Ha-Shavua I.

[4]  Yehuda's participation is also problematic; he sides with the brothers when they seek to kill Yosef!

[5] See Rashi on verse 29, citing both explanations.

[6] See Ramban and Abarbanel on Bereishit 37:22.