Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Va-Yeshev 5765/ December 4, 2004

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan , Israel . A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University 's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University . Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,


“To Restore Him to His Father”

Yossi Ziv
Merkaz Schapira


Parashat Va-Yeshev introduces the third section of the book of Genesis, [1]   whose central theme is the story of Joseph and his brothers. In a closely woven plot over four weekly readings, the Torah tells a story of twenty-two years, from the sale of Joseph by his brothers until he is reunited with his father, in great detail. This is in sharp contrast to the earlier parts of the book, where much longer periods of time are treated in a few brief chapters and in short narrative units. [2]

This week’s reading begins with a depiction of relationships within Jacob’s household:  Jacob’s love for Joseph, tattle-telling, and the stories of the dreams that led to the brothers’ jealousy and hatred of Joseph (37:1-12).   When Joseph was sent by Jacob to see how his brothers were faring with the sheep (37:13-36), the brothers raised three suggestions for dealing with him:  1) the suggestion of all the brothers to kill him (verse 20); 2) Reuben’s suggestion to throw Joseph into a pit (verse 22); and 3) Judah’s suggestion to sell Joseph (verse 27).

It seems that of the three, Reuben’s has been almost completed repressed in our consciousness, be it because of its moderation in comparison with the suggestion to kill Joseph, or be it because it was ultimately rejected.   In what follows we shall focus on Reuben’s suggestion (37:21-22):

(21) But when Reuben heard it, he tried to save him from them.  He said, “Let us not take his life.”  (22) And Reuben went on [lit.:  And Reuben said to them], “Shed no blood!   Cast him into that pit out in the wilderness, but do not touch him yourselves” – intending to save him from them and restore him to his father.

Scripture intertwines Reuben’s words with his thoughts.   He thought to “save him from them,” but he said, [3] “Let us not take his life.”  He said, “Shed no blood!  Cast him into that pit out in the wilderness, but do not touch him yourselves,” while thinking, “intending to save him from them and restore him to his father.”

Scripture tends not to dwell on describing thoughts and feelings.   The biblical narrative generally is confined to describing actual deeds, leaving the reader to understand what was in the mind of the doer.  In these verses Scripture departs from its usual way and details Reuben’s intentions.  Moreover, by detailing Reuben’s intentions a duplication is created in the text, for Reuben’s intentions to save Joseph are clear to the reader from what he said at the outset, so that Scripture’s repetition about his plans (the end of verse 22) introduces nothing new, as the chiastic structure illustrates:



(21) But when Reuben heard it, he tried to save him from them.   He said, “Let us not take his life.”



(22)    “but do not touch him yourselves” – intending to save him from them and restore him to his father.


The departure from the usual way of Scripture in describing Reuben’s plans and intentions, and the duplication in what he said have elicited extensive commentary, as we shall see below.  

Rabbenu Joseph Bekhor-Shor (12th century bible commentator, one if the ba’ale hatosafot) discerns two stages in Reuben’s proposal (from his commentary on 37:21):

Initially Reuben said:   Do not do this evil thing, sinning with the boy; but they did not listen to him, as he later protested when they came down to Egypt...:  “Did I not tell you, ‘Do no wrong to the boy’?  But you paid no heed” (42:22)...  Seeing that they would not listen to him, he included himself with them, saying, “Let us not take his life,” rather than “Do not you take his life.”  In other words:   I, too, am going along with it; so that they would not notice that he wished to save him...   Therefore he said to them with guile:   Since you do not wish to let him be, it would be best to minimize the sin, best to let him die naturally himself without actually shedding his blood with your own hands; while his intention was to save him.

The duplication in the text stems from the two stages in what Reuben said.  His first suggestion was to let Joseph be.   This is the proposal of which he reminds the brothers later on, when they were accused of being spies, as they stood before Joseph.   Given the brothers’ refusal (which is not mentioned in Scripture), Reuben put forth his second suggestion, in which he attempted to grab the rope at both ends:   both to save Joseph and to satisfy his brothers that their opportunity to get back at Joseph would not slip through their fingers.   He suggested to his brothers passively killing Joseph by throwing him into the pit, assuming that the area was desolate and that no one would come to Joseph’s rescue.   Thus they would achieve their objective and their hands would remain “clean” of blood.   Reuben’s plan was to return to the pit, rescue Joseph, and send him off to his father, thus fulfilling his obligation as the first-born. [4]   However Judah’s suggestion to sell Joseph put Reuben’s suggestion out of the running. [5]

The Sages, noting the duplication in the text and the detailed presentation of Reuben’s thoughts, interpreted this as hinting at something else (Babylonian Talmud, Makkot 10a):  “Why was Reuben listed first when it came to saving?  Because he was the first to suggest saving Joseph, as it is said, ‘But when Reuben heard it, he tried to save him from them’ (Gen. 37).” [6]

The duplication in the text and the details of Reuben’s thoughts of rescuing Joseph, according to the Sages hint at Reuben’s reward.  Even though his suggestion was rejected, Reuben was rewarded for thinking well [7] by having the first city of refuge allotted in his territory, as it is written:  “Bezer, in the wilderness in the Tableland, belonging to the Reubenites” (Deut. 4:43).   The connection between Reuben’s suggestion for saving Joseph and establishing the first city of refuge or “saving” in his territory can be based on a direct parallel between verse 22 in this week’s reading and verse 25 in the passage on cities of refuge (Num. 35):


Verse 22

to save [Heb. hatzil]


from them

and restore him (lehashivo)

to his father

Verse 25

The assembly shall protect[Heb. vehitzillu]  

the manslayer  

from the blood avenger,  

and the assembly shall restore him   (veheshivu) 

to the city of refuge.


Midrash Tanhuma (Buber ed., Parashat Va-Yeshev par. 13), and Rashi ascribe what Scripture says about Reuben’s thoughts to the “Holy Spirit,” i.e., the narrator of Scripture.   We cite Rashi (s.v. le-ma’an hatzil):  “The Holy Spirit bears witness for Reuben that he said this only for the purpose of saving his brother – that he would come afterwards and draw him up from there.   He thought, ‘I am the first-born and the chief among them, and blame will attach to no one but myself.’”

Rashi copes with the difficulties that we raised in terms of different voices speaking. The end of Reuben’s words, “to save him from them and restore him to his father,” is said by the Holy Spirit, not by Reuben himself.  It is a sort of remark made by the omniscient narrator, as literary scholars of the Bible would say. [8]   Since there are two speakers (Reuben and the Holy Spirit/narrator), there is no problem of duplication; the narrative comment provides an explanation for the description of Reuben’s intentions, something which as we have said is not common in Scriptures.   This approach is well-supported by the homily in Leviticus Rabbah (Vilna edition, chapter 34, s.v. R. Simon):

Rabbi Isaac said:   The Torah teaches proper manners, that when a person performs a commandment it should be done with joy in the heart; for if Reuben had known that the Holy One, blessed be He, wrote about him (Gen. 37) “But when Reuben heard it, he tried to save him from them,” he would have laden him [on his camel] and led him to his father.” [9]

This Midrash teaches that Reuben was rewarded by the Holy One, blessed be He, when the Lord Himself graced him in the Torah with the title of “the one who saved Joseph,” as it is said (Gen. 37:21):  “But when Reuben heard it, he tried to save him from them.”  Even though his suggestion was rejected, nevertheless it prevented the murder. [10]   The Midrash, however, also sounds a note of criticism, that Reuben ought to have put more effort into saving Joseph (by loading him on his camel and leading him to his father).   Relevant to our analysis is the observation that the homilist distinguishes between Reuben’s thoughts, “written” by the Holy One, blessed be He, and his deeds.

Thus we see that verses which at first glance appear to be superfluous and a departure from the usual way of Scripture actually inform us of various stages in the plot’s unfolding, show the relationship between different passages in the Torah, or combine the voice of the narrator with the voice of the hero of the story.

[1] Genesis is generally viewed as having three parts:   chapters 1-11, telling the story of creation and early mankind; chapters 12-36, about our patriarchs; and chapters 37-50, the story of Joseph and his brothers.

[2] With the exception of the story of Tamar and Judah (Gen. 38) and the list of those who descended to Egypt (Gen. 46:8-27).

[3] These words can be interpreted as part of Reuben’s thoughts:   “He said [in his heart], ‘Let us not take his life.’”  The addition of the words “to them” in verse 22 reinforces this interpretation; when Scripture says simply “he said,” he though to himself (verse 21), but when it says “he said to them,” he actually spoke to his brothers.   Be that as it may, these verses present a combination of Reuben’s thoughts and actions.

[4] That is also how Nahmanides interprets the verse.

[5] Rejection of Reuben’s suggestion in favor of Judah’s repeats itself when Jacob has to send Benjamin to Egypt.  Reuben’s words (Gen. 42:37), “You may kill my two sons if I do not bring him back to you,” pale in comparison to Judah’s (Gen. 43:9):   “I myself will be surety for him; you may hold me responsible” and are rejected.   Thus Reuben joins the long line of first-born sons in Scripture who do not inherit positions of leadership (Cain, Ishmael, Esau, Aaron, Eliav and others). 

[6] This idea appears in a variety of formulations also in Genesis Rabbah (Theodore-Albeck edition), chapter 84, s.v. (21) va-yishma Reuven; Midrash Samuel (Buber edition), chapter 9, s.v. [6] mi-peri; Midrash Aggadah (Buber edition), Genesis chapter 37, s.v. [21] va-yishma Reuven, and elsewhere.

[7] Following the saying, “The Omnipresent combines one’s good thoughts with action” (Jerusalem Talmud, Pe’ah 1.1; 16b); similarly in The Fathers according to Rabbi Nathan (Version B, chapter 45):   “Three people thought well and the Omnipresent revealed their thoughts to all living things, and these were they:  Reuben, Tamar, and Ruth.   Reuben thought to save Joseph, as it is said:  ‘And Reuben went on, “Shed no blood!” (Gen. 37:22).  Whence do we know that the Omnipresent revealed his thoughts to all living things?   For it is said, ‘May Reuben live [and not die]’ (Deut. 33:6).  [May Reuben live] by virtue of [what he did for] Joseph, and not die for what he did with Bilhah.”

[8] See Frank Pollack, Ha-Sippur ba-Mikra, Jerusalem 1994, pp. 311-321.

[9] Likewise in Ruth Rabbah (Lerner edition), chapter 5, s.v. amar R. Yitzhak.

[10] This is also how Rashbam interprets “to save him from them”:   that he was not killed.   In other words, Scripture ascribes Joseph’s being saved from death to Reuben.