Many commentators are curious about Reuven’s motivations in wanting to save Yosef (37:21-22). As put so succinctly by Shadal, “It is not that he was any more merciful than the other brothers; as when he saw (37:30) that ‘the child was not,’ he [showed that] he was only worried about himself, saying, ‘And I, where will I go?’” (Note the repetition of the word “I” in this phrase.) Rabbenu Bachya likewise suggests that Reuven’s very anonymous phrasing, “let us not smite a soul,” and “do not spill bloom,” was not an expression of concern for Yosef, but rather for the brothers – that they not transgress and have to pay the consequences later.
In fact, many commentators see Reuven’s motive as even baser. Rashi simply tells us that since he was the firstborn, he would be the one to get the blame. Others expand on this and explain that his firstborn status implicated him in more ways than just being expected to show leadership. They add that since Reuven had the most to lose from Yosef’s usurpation of leadership, he would be the natural suspect of the plot to get rid of him. Still others suggest that after the incident with Bilhah (35:22), saving Yosef would be a way to get back on his father’s good side.
Indeed, I have yet to see a commentary saying that Reuven acted as the voice of love and decency among his brothers. While it would be interesting to develop why Reuven’s act of bravery and non-conformity seems to universally be viewed as compromised, my interest here lies elsewhere. Instead, I want to focus on the fact that – in spite of the commentators’ ambivalence about what motivates Reuven – the Torah makes a point of detailing his proper actions.
The rabbis (Ruth Rabbah 5:6) say that had Reuven known that the Torah would have written down this incident, he would have been emboldened to more forcefully oppose his brothers and take Yosef back to his father “on his shoulders.” Many wonder why this should have so drastically altered Reuven’s actions. R. Moshe Alshekh, for example, asks whether it is appropriate to think that Reuven was looking for fame and glory.
In fact, what the midrash may be saying is that since the Torah knows the deepest thoughts of a person, there are radically different ways it could have spun this – and even if he had carried Yosef back on his shoulders. For example, the Torah could have said something like this: Reuven was very worried about would happen if Yosef was killed. He was convinced that his father would permanently ostracize him and that he would be ejected from the future Jewish nation. True, he himself agreed with the brothers and would have been as happy as anyone about Yosef falling off the face of the planet. However, knowing that he would be blamed and bear the severe consequences just mentioned, he stood up to his younger brothers and prevented them from killing him outright, such that he might have a chance at rescuing him when they weren’t looking.
In other words, given his less-than-altruistic motivations, the Torah could have given us a much more negative spin on what occurred. But it doesn’t. That is because the bottom line is that Reuven did the right thing. And that is what the Torah cares about the most. Had he not intervened when he did, Yehudah’s further actions to save his life would have come too late. Moreover, Reuven may well have agreed that Yosef deserved to be killed, but he also knew that his father would not want it. And though this was not what moved him, he did know that by saving Yosef – and really himself – he was simultaneously preforming a good deed towards his father (ultimately, also for his Father).
The above midrash brings this as one of several examples of, when doing a commandment, one should do it with a full heart – examples in which the doer did not go all out. In this case, had Reuven known the Torah’s positive verdict on proper actions when they are accompanied by self-serving thoughts, he would have acted differently. For without such a verdict, he might well have thought, “What is so great about what I am doing? After all, I am only doing it for myself.” To which the Torah responds, “It is greater than you can ever imagine.” The act is ultimately what counts.
And it is this verdict that the rabbis notice. That it is far better to save an innocent life for the wrong reasons than to stand by for the right reasons!