As the youngest of three boys in my family growing up, I knew that I was smarter than my brothers. After all, aren’t the youngest siblings always the smartest? I paid attention to the mistakes my brothers made: the arguments with my parents, the trials and tribulations of being older and making the mistakes before me. All I had to do to avoid getting into trouble was pay attention and do the opposite. For the most part, I did pretty well. And for the most part, my brothers didn’t mind — until they did.
I suppose it was ever thus, and to a certain extent being brothers isn’t always easy. Take the story of Jacob’s sons — the famous story of brothers in this week’s parasha, Parashat Vayeshev — where we learn about Jacob’s favorite son, Joseph. As Professor Julius Lester notes, “…of the 50 chapters of Genesis, 25 are about Jacob and his family, and 13 of those are devoted to Joseph. Genesis spends more time on Joseph than on anyone else.” That would drive any reasonable sibling to anger. Not only was Joseph Jacob’s favorite, he seems to be the favorite of Genesis as well.
As the story unfolds and Joseph is more and more despised by his brothers for flaunting his dream-interpreting abilities and his flashy multicolored coat, his brothers devise a plan to put an end, once and for all, to Joseph and what they construe to be his prideful ambitions to dominate the family, by killing Joseph and claiming a wild beast did it. When Joseph is spotted approaching his brothers in the fields, they were ready to put the plan into action. Reuben, the eldest brother, steps forward to protest the direct killing of Joseph and instead decides to throw Joseph into a pit to leave him to die. The Torah then shares a thought of Reuben’s plan where we read, “L’ma’an hatzil oto.. for he intended to (save him),” presumably at some later time.
“For he intended to.” Famous last words indeed. What was Reuben really thinking? “I’ll save him at a later time when no one is looking? When it’s convenient for me? When I don’t have to explain myself?” Reuben must have known that as the eldest he would be held responsible for Joseph’s whereabouts. Nevertheless, even though Joseph wasn’t killed by their hands or by a beast, Reuben didn’t save him and believes that he has died when he sees that that the pit is empty.
While it is noteworthy to highlight that Reuben had less evil intentions than his brothers, intentions that are unacted upon are plans half done. It was good that Reuben intended to help; it would have been better had Reuben actually helped. It was good that Reuben thought good thoughts to himself about not killing Joseph; it would have been better had Reuben defended Joseph. He gets half credit for thinking it. But a grade of 50% isn’t that great.
Perhaps this scene is one of those Torah scenes, as my teachers taught me, of something NOT to do, without there being an explicit “thou shall not” attached to it. It is the action that matters, especially when there is a life on the line. Intending to act matters for sure, but actually acting matters more. To stop short of helping when we can, risks keeping those in need, in need. While the Joseph story ends well for Jacob and ultimately the Jewish people, let us never forget that we should intend to help and that we definitely act when we can.
Rabbi Andrew Paley serves Temple Shalom in Dallas. He is a member of the Rabbinic Association of Greater Dallas.