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In Breishit 42:21, the verse begins:

"Each person said to his brother, we are all guilty..."

In verse 22, Re'uven chastises his brothers by telling them, "Didn't I tell you do not do sin with the child..."

Going back to the initial account of the story, in Breishit 37:20-22, the brothers propose to kill Joseph. Re'uven suggests, don't kill him, but throw him in this pit planning to eventually return to retrieve Joseph and return him to his father. Rash"i explains that there were snakes and scorpions in the pit. During the time of the suggestion, wouldn't Re'uven realize that putting Joseph in the pit was dangerous? Maybe not?

So, there might be a contradiction with the initial story and verse 42:21. Re'uven was not around when they sold Joseph. If he is confessing with his brothers, why is he doing that, if he wasn't responsible for the selling?

All the verse says is that they said "We are guilty for seeing our brother's suffering and we didn't listen" (It doesn't say what or to whom they didn't listen. I assume it means to Joseph's screaming for mercy.) So, if Reuven, in fact IS confessing his guilt with his brothers, then, in the next verse, when he chastises them, what purpose does that accomplish? His suggesting that they place Joseph in a pit might have also caused his death.

Another angle - If Re'uven knew, in advance, that he had to leave his brothers, why did he trust them that they would leave Joseph alone in the pit while he was gone? Even discounting the factor, we see that despite his intentions to retrieve Joseph from the pit, he doesn't do this, immediately, but he disappears from the scene.

Something to note in verse 21 - the brothers say, "Therefore all this trouble has come upon us." Even if Re'uevn is not part of that actual confession, the "trouble" the brothers are referring to is the claim of being spies, which includes Re'uven as well. So, they would be including Re'uven in the consequences, anyway.

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The simplest answer is that your translation is not accurate. The verse actually states:

וַיֹּאמְר֞וּ אִ֣ישׁ אֶל־אָחִ֗יו אֲבָל֘ אֲשֵׁמִ֣ים׀ אֲנַחְנוּ֘ עַל־אָחִינוּ֒

And they said to each other: we are guilty for [what we did to] our brother.

There is no indication that Reuven (or any other given brother) admitted guilt. The simple reading of verse 22, indicates that Reuven said "to them", as opposed to himself who was not included in the confession of verse 21.

Indeed, the Meshivat Nefesh to verse 21 suggests that they didn't initially think that they were being punished for Yosef, since they were all in the same boat, but Reven was innocent!

However, Ohr Hahayyim to verse 21 suggests that Reuven was aware that Yosef was thrown into the pit, and therefore shared a degree of culpability for not saving Yosef when he cried for help. (Ohr HaHayyim references the snakes and scorpions in the pit, indicating that he believes in that Midrashm, although he also references fear of dehydration as a reason why Yosef would have cried for help.)

Also regarding the Midrash about the snakes, Ramban (Genesis 37:22) notes it isn't peshat. Hizkuni (there) suggests that even according to the Midrash about the snakes, Reuven wasn't culpable, since Reuven wouldn't have put him into an infested pit. Rather, Reuven had him thrown into a non-infested pit, and after Reuven left, they switched him into a different, infested, pit. Rabbenu Hayyim Paltiel (there) suggests a variation of this explanation. He suggests that Reuven suggested that they throw him into one (not infested pit), and instead they threw him into a different pit (that was infested). This is suggested by Riva al HaTorah as well. Alternatively, if one accepts this Midrash, one could suggest that Reuve didn't know about the snakes (Ramban, Riva's second explanation). Alternatively, Riva suggests that Reuven assumed that Yosef would simply use sorcery to protect himself from the snakes.

Furthermore, regarding the question of Reuven's culpability for leaving Yosef in the pit, the Midrash Tanhuma (ed. Buber Parashat Vayeshev 13) suggests that had Reuven known that he would be mentioned in the Torah as trying to save Yosef, the wouldn't have left him there, but would have just taken him home. This indicates that Reuven didn't do his best, since if he was already doing his best, why would he act differently if he knew it would be mentioned in the Torah.

Other Midrashim, however, portray Reuven's leaving in a positive light, such as suggesting he was doing t'shuva (B'reshit Rabba: Parashat Vayeshev 84), or going take care of Yaakov, or that he was hiding out for the purpose of coming back to save Yosef (Pirkei D'rAbbi Eliezer (ed. Higger 37), Midrash HaBeiur to Genesis 37:29).

  • Thanks for the thorough answer. It seems that they were admitting guilt for different actions. Sounds feasible. One aspect, though, is that the brothers give a reason, namely, "We saw the afflication to his life when he appealed to us, but we didn't listen.." (loose translation.) Question is, are they referring to a specific event? – DanF Dec 20 '17 at 20:05
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As you point out in the question, it's unclear whether Reuven is included in וַיֹּאמְרוּ אִישׁ אֶל-אָחִיו, and they said one to another. Reuven's response might mean either (a) he didn't speak before and now he's telling them why they were wrong ("I told you so"), or (b) he was part of the group and now he's defending himself ("I'm less guilty than you").

I saw a d'var torah about Reuven and this incident last week, but unfortunately I no longer remember to whom to give credit. It pointed out Reuven's failure to actually protect Yosef; he was able to prevent the others from killing him, which is good, but he wasn't able to prevent the sale. (He didn't know in advance about the sale, but by leaving he wasn't able to prevent it.) Had he been a stronger leader (the d'var author suggested), he would have spoken up to his brothers instead of compromising on the pit.

If he is part of the group saying "we are guilty", perhaps it is this failing that he is acknowledging. "We are guilty" doesn't need to mean that each is guilty of the same thing, just that each bears guilt for Yosef being sold -- most through direct action and one through inaction.

  • There's one problem I see with this explanation. Re'euven only suggested that they put him in the pit. He wasn't around for the sale, and most likely had no clue that the other brothers were planning to sell him. On a separate issue, Re'uven seems to imply that Yosef is dead since he says, "His blood is being requested." – DanF Dec 14 '17 at 16:45
  • Right, Reuven didn't ensure that no harm would come to Yosef. He couldn't reasonably anticipate the sale, but all sorts of things could go wrong and he wasn't there to intervene. He tried to sneak around his brothers instead of confronting them on the murder plans. – Monica Cellio Dec 14 '17 at 16:49

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