Reuben - A Model of Repentance
Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4-36:43 )
Jacob's eldest son Reuben seems like an unfortunate figure in the Torah. As the first-born son, his tribe was destined to be the tribe of the Kingship and Priesthood. However, because of one sin in this week's Torah portion, that of moving his father's bed, he lost these honors. Yet Reuben's reaction to his sin gives him a special place in Torah literature as an example of repenting from sins. The Midrash quotes the first verse in the Book of Hoshea, who was a descendant of Reuben. "Return, Israel, to HaShem Your God." (1) The Midrash explains why a descendant of Reuben in particular, was chosen to call the Jewish people to teshuva (repentance). It points out that when the brothers sold Joseph as a slave Reuben was not present because he was busy fasting and repenting his sin: "The Holy One, Blessed be He, said: No man had ever sinned before me and repented, and opened with repentance, by your life, your descendant will stand and begin with teshuva..." (2)
The commentators point out a glaring problem with this Midrash: Reuven was not the first person to do teshuva - Adam repented for his sin of eating the fruit and Cain repented for killing Abel,(3) accordingly what does the Midrash mean when it extols Reuben as the first person to repent?! They answer that the circumstances that led to the teshuva of Reuben were very different from those of Adam and Cain. In the case of Adam, he only repented after God told him that he had gravely sinned and enumerated the numerous negative consequences of the sin. Likewise with regard to Cain, he did not initially admit that he sinned. He only repented after God informed him of the gravity of what he did and the subsequent punishment that he would suffer. Thus there were two factors that negated the power of the repentance of Adam and Cain; firstly it did not come from their own recognition of their sin, rather God had to inform them of this; secondly, their repentance was motivated by fear of the punishments that they would receive for their sin, and far less due to a genuine regret that they had contradicted God's will.
Reuben's repentance was a result of very different circumstances. Firstly Reuben was not informed of his sin by God in the same way that Adam or Cain were. Moreover, he was only rebuked by Jacob many years later when he blessed his sons at his deathbed. Therefore, Reuben's repentance came from his own recognition of the error of his action in moving his father's bed. Moreover, unlike Adam and Cain, his repentance was not motivated by fear of punishment, rather by a genuine regret that he had distanced himself from God. Thus when the Midrash says that Reuben opened in repentance, it means that he was the first to initiate repentance without having to be told that he sinned. Moreover, he was the first to repent 'leshem Shamayim' that is purely because he realized that what he had done was against God's will.
The Rabbis praise Reuben further for his reaction to the consequences of his sin. The Gemara in Berachot tells us one of the meanings of the name Reuben that Leah had in mind when she named her first born.(4) She said to herself: "See the difference between my son and the son of my father in law [Esau]; with regard to the son of my father in law he sold the rights to the first-born...yet see what it says,: 'And Esau hated Jacob'. Whereas with regard to my son, even though Joseph took the first-born for him against his will...even so he was not jealous, as it says, 'And Reuben heard and saved him from them." The Gemara is telling us that Reuben was aware that as a result of his sin, Joseph would gain the rights of the first born, nevertheless he did not bear hatred towards his brother, rather he actually was the only one of the brothers who actively tried to save Joseph.
This was in stark contrast to the vindictive Esau who willingly gave up the rights of the first born and yet hated Jacob when he actively sought out those very rights. This demonstrates a further aspect of Reuben's greatness. He could have very easily been resentful at the dramatic negative consequences of his single mistake. In particular, he could have felt negative feelings towards Joseph, whom all the brothers hated because of his position as Jacob's favorite son. Yet he overcame any natural feelings of resentment and jealousy and instead actually strove to save Joseph from near certain death.
Reuben's actions strongly demonstrate the ability to accept responsibility for one's mistakes and not to blame others who seem to be the cause of one's suffering as a result of those mistakes. This idea is discussed by the Sefer HaChinuch in his outline of the prohibition to take revenge. He explains that it is forbidden for a person to take revenge against someone even if he harms him because he is only a messenger of God. Had the 'victim' not deserved to endure such an incident then God would never have allowed it take place. The fact that it did happen means that God is sending him some kind of message that he did something wrong. Thus it is fruitless to resent him for what he did - rather the person should focus on his own shortcomings and not bear any hatred to the 'aggressor'.(5) This is exactly how Reuben acted - he did not resent Joseph for receiving the rights of the first born as a result of Reuben's sin, rather he focused on his own repentance and did not seek to harm Joseph.
We have seen how Reuben stands as a pillar of repentance; he teaches us of the necessity to analyze one's own action so that he can realize himself when he sinned; and that the main goal of repentance should be to remove the distance from God that the sin created, and not merely to avoid being punished. And finally he teaches us not to resent the people who are God's messengers in applying the punishment for the sin.
1. Hoshea, 14:2.
2. Bereishis, Rabbah, 84:19.
3. Bereishis Rabbah, Ch. 22.
4. Berachos, 7b. The Torah (Bereishis, 29:32) gives a different reason for the name, but Chazal add that she had a second intent in mind as well.
5. Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzva 241.