Parshat Vayeshev: The Relationship Between Reuven and Kayin

“And Reuven returned to the pit…” (Bereishit 37:29) Where had Reuven gone that he needed to return to the pit? One view in the midrash (Bereishit Rabba 84:19) states that he was busy with his sackcloth and fasting while engaged in repentance. Presumably, Reuven repents for the sin he committed involving Bilhah (Bereishit 35:22). Thus, this midrash finds extra resonance in the word “va-yashav” as the word now connotes both physical return and spiritual repentance while simultaneously the midrash accounts for Reuven’s mysterious absence.

The same midrash depicts Reuven as the first individual in human history to repent. As several commentators note, this seemingly contradicts another midrash (Bereishit Rabba 22:13) describing the repentance of Kayin. Of course, midrashim can conflict and reflect different viewpoints. R. Zev Wolf Einhorn (Perush Maharzu) reconciles these midrashim by saying that Kayin only repented after receiving punishment. Reuven, by contrast repented much earlier in the process.

Reuven and Kayin – Similarities and Differences

The contrast and comparison between Kayin and Reuven extends much further. Both are angry with a younger brother who outshines them. Each is a first born who gets displaced. Kayin sees God prefer Hevel’s offering and Reuven witnesses Yaakov bestow favors on Yosef. Kayin commits fratricide whereas Reuven, though he may have originally identified with a plot to kill Yosef, attempts to save his brother from death. Other factors may also link these two biblical characters. K’li Yakar suggests that Yosef’s being “toeh ba’sadeh” (37:15) refers to Kayin killing Hevel while in the “sadeh” (4:8). Yosef should have recognized the parallel between the two situations and avoided encountering his brothers at his point in time.

When Reuven returns and finds Yosef missing, he says: “the child is gone and I, where will I go” (37:30). What does he mean by this? It seems that Reuven thought he would be blamed for the disappearance of his brother. This could be because the oldest often bears the brunt of responsibility. Hizkuni says that Yaakov might have suspected Reuven of the being the most jealous bother since he was the displaced first born. Hizkuni adds that Yosef, as the resident tale bearer, may have been the one to inform Yaakov of Reuven’s misdeeds with Bilhah. If so, Reuven was the most obvious suspect if something negative happened to Yosef.

Murder SceneR. Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin adds another point. “Where will I go” references the possibility of traveling to a city of refuge for the crime of unintentional murder. Interestingly, the Netziv has Reuven thinking that he would receive the same punishment as Kayin who was forced to wander the land. Though Kayin intentionally struck Hevel, Radak and others assume that he was not a willful murderer since humanity did not truly comprehend at that early stage of history what murder meant. Thus, we can explain his wandering as a leaving home akin to fleeing to a city of refuge. According to R. Berlin, Reuven was concerned that the fate of Kayin awaits him.

In addition to the above, a few hassidic and kabbalistic sources state that Reuven was the reincarnation of Kayin (see Shaar Hagilgulim, Chapter 33 and Tiferet Shlomo on Vayeshev). Whether or not one affirms reincarnation as a Jewish belief, this linkage points to the idea that Reuven fixed a transgression of Kayin. Kayin’s jealous rage led to murder whereas Reuven overcame his feelings of envy and saved his much younger brother. Which character trait enabled this successful act of repentance?

Most of us experience difficulties, frustrations and humiliations and therefore have various grudges and grievances, some of them justified. Feelings of hurt can dominate our field of vision until we see ourselves as perpetual victims and become blind to the pains of others. Kayin was so caught up in his own complaints that he failed to think about Hevel’s suffering as he struck him down. Reuven, on the other hand, was full of remorse for his inappropriate behavior with Bilhah. These feelings enabled him to enlarge his vision beyond his anger and frustration and acknowledge the hurt the brothers might inflict on both Yosef and Yaakov. Thus, he heroically came to the defense of the very brother who had usurped his natural role as the inheritor of Yaakov’s destiny and mission.

Rav Yitzchak BlauRav Yitzhak Blau, a member of Beit Hillel, is Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshivat Orayta, an instructor at Midreshet Lindenbaum, and an Associate Editor of Tradition. The author of Fresh Fruit and Vintage Wine: The Ethics and Wisdom of the Aggada (KTAV, 2009), he has published many articles in periodicals such as Tradition and The Torah U-Madda Journal. He previously taught at Yeshivat Hamivtar, Yeshivat Shvilei Hatorah, and the Yeshivah of Flatbush.


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