Parashat Shabbat Shuva / Repentance and Reconstruction

Yakov Z. Meyer
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'Joseph Sold by His Brothers.' by Raffaellino Bottalla (circa 1640).Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Yakov Z. Meyer

When Joseph reaches his brothers, who are shepherding the family’s flock, they conspire to kill him – but Reuben saves him: Following Reuben’s counsel, the brothers commute Joseph’s death sentence and instead throw him into a pit. Thereafter, while they share a meal nearby, a caravan of Ishmaelites appears, whereupon Judah proposes that Joseph be taken out of the pit and sold to them. Immediately after the transaction, the Torah relates, “And Reuben returned unto the pit; and, behold, Joseph was not in the pit; and he rent his clothes” (Genesis 37:29).

The sages ask a logical question: “It is written, ‘And Reuben returned,’ but where was he?” (Bereisheet Rabbah 84:19). According to the beginning of the narrative, Reuben sits down for a meal together with his brothers – and yet, according to its ending, it appears that he is not with them at the time of the sale. So, where was Reuben?

To solve this narrative quandary, the sages insert an additional narrative fragment into the crack in the biblical story, as per the same source: “Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Joshua debated this question. Rabbi Eliezer said: [Reuben] was busy with his sackcloth and his fasting.’ When he takes off his sackcloth and ends his fast, he goes back to the pit to check on Joseph, as it is written, ‘And Reuben returned.’ Rabbi Joshua said: The entire management of his family’s household falls on his shoulders. When he finishes his chores at home, he goes back to the pit, as it is written, ‘And Reuben returned.’”

Rabbi Joshua expands on Reuben’s story in accordance with an “axis” that is created at the beginning of the story – that is, the axis between the home of Jacob and his children, on the one hand, and the town of Dothan on the other. If Reuben is not with his brothers in Dothan, some miles away, obviously he is at home. Reuben is the eldest and is thus responsible for the household’s management, so he is not present at the time of Joseph’s sale because he is busy attending to various chores. For his part, Rabbi Eliezer is very precise in his analysis of the phrase “And Reuben returned,” because the verb ‘returned’ in Hebrew also connotes repentance. In Rabbi Eliezer’s view, not only is Reuben physically moving along the axis between his home and the field in Dothan: He is preoccupied with his sackcloth and his fasting – two essential elements in doing penance. For that reason, he is not with his brothers at the time of the sale.

Only when Reuben removes his sackcloth and ends his fast does he return to the pit and discover Joseph’s fate. And why does Reuben do penance? Because, as we read two chapters earlier, “And it came to pass, while Israel dwelt in that land, that Reuben went and lay with Bilhah his father’s concubine” (Gen. 35:22). This verse, the sages note, “was read [in the synagogue] but was not translated” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Megillah, Mishnah 4:8). In other words, that passage was read out but not translated into Aramaic, so that the congregation would not understand its precise meaning. This practice was followed so as to prevent any aspersions from being cast on Reuben and to show respect for Jacob. In their homily on the words, “And Reuben returned,” however, the sages mention this incident, which admittedly portrays Reuben in a negative light but also enables them to construct the narrative of his life as one of sin and repentance.

“It is written, ‘the sons of Leah: Reuben, Jacob’s first-born [and Simeon, and Levi, and Judah, and Issachar and Zebulun]’ [Gen. 35:23]. Rabbi Yuden, citing Rabbi Acha, said: Reuben was the eldest in terms of pregnancy, eldest in terms of childbirth, eldest in terms of birthright, eldest in terms of inheritance, eldest in terms of sinning and eldest in terms of doing penance. Rabbi Azariah said: He was also the eldest in terms of prophecy, as it is written, ‘When the Lord spoke at first with Hosea’ [Hosea 1:2]” (Bereisheet Rabbah 82:11).

Thus Reuben was the eldest, the first, in many respects, including both sinning and doing penance, as alluded to in the words, “And Reuben returned.” Rabbi Azariah’s interpretation is fascinating because, in accordance with the age-old principle in Jewish tradition that children emulate their parents, the quality of being the eldest is passed on from Reuben to his descendants, including the prophet Hosea, who is from the Tribe of Reuben. Regarding the prophet Hosea, it is written, “When the Lord spoke at first with Hosea,” indicating that he is the first among the later prophets to prophesy.

The midrash goes on to associate Reuben’s story with Hosea’s: Rabbi Eliezer describes what he imagines God saying to Reuben: “God said to Reuben: Up until now, no one ever sinned in my presence and then did penance after sinning. As a reward, one of your descendants will be the first in his generation to do penance. And who was that person? Hosea, as it is written, ‘Return, O Israel’ (Hos. 14:2)” (Bereishsheet Rabbah 84:19).

Hosea’s prophecy opens with the words, “Return, O Israel, unto the Lord thy God; for thou hast stumbled in thine iniquity” (Hos. 14:2). This prophecy was chosen as the haftarah for Shabbat Shuva, the Sabbath of Return, which begins tonight and is the last Sabbath before Yom Kippur. The opening words of the haftarah lend this special Sabbath its name.

The sages reconstruct Reuben’s biography as the first to have sinned and the first to have done penance. God rewards Reuben by placing the prophecy “Return, O Israel” on the lips one of his descendants: Hosea, son of Beeri. Similarly, they reconstruct Hosea’s biography.

In the opening of the Book of Hosea, God commands the prophet to marry a harlot and to thus serve personally as a living metaphor of God’s situation vis-à-vis the Children of Israel, who have abandoned him and are whoring by worshiping false idols. Hosea turns to God and proposes that he kill Israel because they have sinned against him. The sages write: “God says: What should I do to this elder? I will tell him to wed a harlot who will make him the father of children of harlotry. Then I will order him to divorce her. If he can banish her and divorce her, I will also banish Israel, as it is written: ‘The Lord said unto Hosea: “Go, take unto thee a wife of harlotry and children of harlotry”’ (Hos. 1:2). After his wife gives birth to two sons and a daughter, God says to Hosea: Why have you not learned from Moses, who divorced his wife after I began to speak with him? You as well should divorce your wife.

“Hosea replies to God: O Lord, Master of the Universe, she is the mother of my children. I cannot divorce her. God answers: Your wife is a harlot and your children are the children of harlotry; you do not even know whether you are their father. Yet Israel are the children of my children and I have compassion for the children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. You tell me to banish them and choose another nation? Realizing that he has sinned, Hosea asks God to be merciful to him, whereupon God says to him: Now that you are asking me to show you mercy, you should also ask me to show mercy to Israel. Hosea does so, whereupon God cancels his dire decree and begins to bless Israel” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Pesachim, pg. 87 a-b).

The sages depict Reuben and Hosea’s penitence as a process whose reward is to be found beyond any visible horizon. Repentance cannot erase the sin nor can it change the sinner’s life. In fact, it can sometimes even have negative repercussions for the sinner: Reuben cannot save Joseph, and Hosea becomes a living, tormented metaphor. Repentance cannot help sinners extricate themselves from their dismal situation, although it can help them to reconstruct the narrative of their life in retrospect. The advantage of repentance therefore lies not in its reward, but in its capacity for enabling sinners to reflect on their lives.