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First Born Sons

This week's reading introduces us to Joseph and his adventures in Egypt. The parsha opens with telling us that Joseph is seventeen, he is his father's favorite child and that he (Joseph) has vivid dreams. We also learn early on that his brother's hate him because of his dreams. This hatred (or fear) leads directly to their first plotting to kill him and then eventually to their throwing him into a pit. What happens next is a matter of how you read the text.

Some understand the text to teach that the brothers decide against killing Joseph in favor selling him to the Ishmaelites. "And afterwards [throwing Joseph into the pit] when they sat down to eat they lifted up their eyes and looked; lo! there was a caravan of Ishmaelites ...Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites" (Genesis 37:25 - 27) But the next verse suggests a problem with this reading: "Meanwhile Midianite men, traders, passed by, pulled and fetched Joseph out of the pit and sold Yosef to the Ishmaelites...and they brought Yosef to Mitzrayim."

Who actually sold Yosef into slavery? Was it the brothers or was it the Midianites? Of course, it doesn't matter who actually received payment for Yosef because it is clear from the text that the brothers, with the exception of Reuben, fully intended to rid themselves of him one way or another, and therefore, according to tradition bear the responsibility.

So what redeeming lesson can we glean from this excessive tale of sibling rivalry? To answer this question let us take a closer look at Reuben. When Yosef's brothers spot him coming they immediately set about plotting to kill him: "Now come, let us kill him, let us throw him into one of the pits and say that wild beasts ate him". (37:19) However, "Reuben heard it and rescued him from their hands". Thus, it is clear that Reuben does not want harm to come to his younger brother. Why?

This is not clear from the text. One possible answer is that Reuben was concerned about becoming the only "first" born son. Yosef, recall, was the first born son of Yaakov by Rachel while Reuben was the first born son of Yaakov by Leah. Perhaps he feared that he would bear the brunt of the fault for the "accident" that was supposed to befall Yosef. Or, possibly the responsibilities of a first born were more than he could handle? (In either case, this dynamic between two "first borns" offers a distorted reflection of the rivalry for first born status between Yaakov and Esau). Regardless, his concern for his brother seems genuine when he later discovers that Yosef is gone from the pit: "When Yosef was not in the pit, he rent his clothes. The he returned to his brothers and said: 'The child is not here, and I -where can I go?'". (37:29-30)

From this sequence of text it appears that Reuben truly intended to save his brother. But what happened? He delayed doing what he believed he should do and the consequence was that he was too late to save his brother. The lesson is clear and familiar: we must not put off until later what must be done now.
Topics: Divrei Torah
Type: Dvar Torah