In Reuven’s speech in which he tries to convince his father to allow him to bring Binyamin back to Egypt, he makes an extremely odd statement. He says, “Et Shnei Banai Tamit Im Lo Avienu Eilecha,” “You may kill my two sons if I do not bring [Binyamin] to you.” Rashi says that Yaakov refused to allow Reuven to bring Binyamin because it was such a foolish statement. After all, Reuven’s sons were also Yaakov’s grandsons, so why would he want to kill them?
However, we know that Reuven was no fool. We see this clearly from his plan to save Yosef from the brothers’ plot to kill him, when he told them to throw Yosef into a pit instead of killing him, intending to rescue him later. While it may not have been a perfect plan, it at least required some thought. So what exactly was running through Reuven’s mind when he made this statement?
The Chatam Sofer says that Reuven did not mean death, but rather disinheritance. He wanted the penalty to be the loss of the portion in Israel set aside for his two sons. Having land in Israel is considered life, as in Bemidbar 14:38, “And Yehoshua and Kalev ben Yefuneh lived from those people,” which is interpreted by Chazal (Bava Batra 118) as referring to the acquisition of land in Israel. If having a portion in Israel is called life, it follows that having no portion can be called death. Reuven thus meant not that his sons should die, but that they should lose their portions in Israel.
Ramban interprets Reuven’s statement as a general statement of curse. In other words, Yaakov should curse Reuven’s sons on condition that the curse should not apply if Reuven brings back Binyamin safely. Ibn Ezra similarly interprets death as a general statement of punishment.
It is also possible to interpret the Pasuk in a somewhat novel fashion. The word Tamit can be interpreted as “you may kill” or “you will kill.” Reuven may have meant that by not allowing the brothers to bring Binyamin to Egypt, Yaakov was in effect killing Reuven’s sons, as they would have nothing to eat and possibly starve to death. He then places a curse upon himself if he does not return Binyamin, using the unfinished form of curse found often in Tanach, in which the condition is stated but the punishment is not. Reuven thus attempts to refute Yaakov’s reasons given in the previous Pasuk for not allowing the brothers to take Binyamin.
So if Reuven actually had a decent rationale for his statement, why did Yaakov reject it?
Ramban says it was because Reuven had previously sinned against Yaakov in his sin regarding Bilhah, so Yaakov did not trust him. He also says that Yehudah was successful because he waited until there was no more food and only then convinced Yaakov to let Binyamin go. Reuven, however, was not patient enough and tried at the wrong time. Only after their supplies were depleted would the danger of starvation become a mitigating factor. When Reuven tried, they had fresh supplies and the possibility of starvation was far off and hence not as powerful an argument.
Of course, this mistake in timing had to be added to Yaakov’s extreme fears to cause him to refuse to allow Reuven to take Binyamin. But why was he so sure that Binyamin would die if he went to Egypt? Rav S.R. Hirsch says that he based his fears on a pattern that he had noticed. First he had lost Yosef, then he had lost Shimon, and now he felt that he would lose Binyamin were he to send him away. Chazal say that although we may not be superstitious, we may look for “signs” regarding houses, children and wives. Since he had repeatedly lost family members, he took this as a sign and did not want to risk any more of his family until he found the cause. Thus, Yaakov did not allow Binyamin to go until he was literally forced to do so by the lack of food.