Our Torah is filled with wonderful stories of heroes, villains and larger than life characters. We can all think about who our favorite biblical figure might be and what they did and who might be the biblical figure we least like and in the midst of all of these stories and personalities we get Reuben, Jacob’s eldest son.
In this week’s Torah portion, he comes ever so close to being the hero but falls just short, and then gets consigned to second class status behind Judah and Joseph.
When Joseph’s brothers see him approaching they immediately make plans to kill him, they plot that they will kill him and then throw him into a pit and then blame it on a savage beast. But Reuben, hearing this, decides to try and save his brother’s life and says to them “let us not take his life”. And tells them not to shed any blood and instead urges them to just throw him into a pit in the wilderness. With his intention being to save him later on and restore him to their father Jacob.
The problem is that Reuben appears to disappear from the story as the brothers sit down for a meal, with Joseph in the pit, they see a caravan of Ishmaelites coming and then Judah steps forward and says, why kill him, we might as well gain something by this, by selling him. And, so they decide together to sell him to the Ishmaelites, selling Joseph, their own brother, into a life of slavery.
And then we read of Reuben, returning to the pit and finding that Joseph was not there. He tears his clothes in anguish, asking what will he do. Taking personal responsibility for the fact that his brother has been sold.
Reuben came so close to saving his brother, but he hesitated. Instead of doing the right thing immediately, he put it off. While his intentions were good throughout the story, his hesitation allowed for events to transpire beyond his control and for Joseph to be sold into slavery. Reuben is a reminder that we shouldn’t put off till tomorrow what can be done today. Especially when it’s doing the right thing.
Ben Azai in Pirkei Avot, The Ethics of our Ancestors, said – run to perform even a minor Mitzvah. He understood that when we need to do the right thing, no matter how small that thing is, we need to try and do it immediately, because in those moments of hesitation, the opportunity may be lost. As the story of the brothers continues, the focus shifts to Joseph and Judah. Reuben is relegated and consigned to a secondary status. As the Nearly Man, he missed his chance. We can learn from his mistakes and insure that we never wait to do the right thing, acting immediately.