In this week’s Parashah, we are told about the famous, yet mysterious, story of Yosef’s sale. In an attempt to save Yosef from sudden death, Reuvein convinces his other brothers to merely throw Yosef into a pit. However, this leaves us with a glaring question to ask of Reuvein’s seemingly courageous act: why would Reuvein think that throwing Yosef into a pit filled with snakes and scorpions (see Rashi BeReishit 37: 24 s.v. VeHaBor Reik Ein Bo Mayim) be any different than killing him with his own hands? Reuvein must have known that an empty pit would be filled with deadly animals!
The Zohar and the Or HaChaim HaKadosh (37:21 s.v. VaYatzileihu MiYadam) both explain a simple but interesting idea. The brothers had the concept of free will, while the snakes and scorpions in the pit did not and were subject to the will of Hashem. Thus, Reuvein understood that while the brothers could have killed Yosef, that was only because of free will and was not the decree of the Heavenly Court. Therefore, Reuvein professed his trust in Hashem by believing that the snakes and scorpions would leave Yosef untouched in the pit.
This is still slightly problematic, though, as it is unclear why Reuvein thought Yosef merited being saved from such a dangerous environment. While Yosef may have been safer in the pit than in his brothers’ hands, this still does not explain how Reuvein could allow this situation to happen?
In order to explain this, we must look at this story on a broader scale. Yosef’s brothers were furious as a result of the favoritism shown to Yosef. As a result of this anger, they impulsively decided that they would kill him. Reuvein believed that the brothers were overreacting; however, in order to save himself, and, ultimately, Yosef, he could not disagree with the brothers outright. Therefore, Reuvein decided to offer an alternative to the brothers that would still “obliterate” him. The brothers were convinced by Reuvein’s arguments and were content with throwing Yosef into a pit with deadly snakes and scorpions. Reuvein, though, understood that despite the danger present in the pit, Yosef would be saved. As the Zohar and Or HaChaim explain, these animals are subject to the will of Hashem. Despite their deadly nature, they are unable to harm anyone without Hashem’s instruction. Reuvein therefore posited that Yosef would be kept safe, and he would later be able to retrieve him from the pit.
Now that we understand Reuvein’s thought process, we can now understand why his actions were so special. Although it is a basic obligation to attempt to save someone’s life, Reuvein was forced to save Yosef through deceiving his brothers and convincing them that he was interested in killing Yosef. This Middah of deception was something which was antithetical to Reuvein’s nature, yet he was willing to forgo this unnatural feeling in order to help others. This is the greatness of Reuvein’s act and the true definition of a pious person: someone who goes beyond his or her natural inclination to do what is righteous in the eyes of Hashem. Like Reuvein, we must be willing to forgo our natural tendencies in order to help others and follow Hashem’s will.