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Topic: Reuven, Trying to save Yosef

Sally Barton wrote:

If the pit that the brothers threw Joseph into was full of snakes and scorpions, so how could Reuven think he was saving Joseph by throwing him into a pit full of snakes and scorpions? Doesn't it say that Reuven was trying to save Joseph and bring him back alive to their father?

Dear Sally Barton,

Yes, Reuven wanted to save Joseph. The Torah describes Reuven's response to his brothers' plan as follows:

And Reuven said to them, "Don't shed blood. Throw him into this pit in the desert, and you won't have to lay your hands upon him." This was in order to save him from their hands and return him to his father ... The pit was empty, there was no water in it. (Genesis 37:22,24)

Rashi comments: "The pit was empty of water, but there were snakes and scorpions in it. (ibid.)

So how could Reuven hope to save Joseph by throwing him into a snake/scorpion pit? Good question.

The well-known Kabbalistic work, the Zohar, poses the exact same question, and answers: "In a place of snakes and scorpions, if a person is righteous G-d will do a miracle for him and he will be saved; however, once a person is in the hands of his enemies there are very few who will be saved."

Snakes and scorpions are 'robots': they are 'programmed' to behave in specific ways. If a person is especially righteous G-d will protect him by 're-programming' the snakes not to bite and the scorpions not to sting.

Humans, on the other hand, have free will; and rarely does G-d interfere with human free will. So sometimes a righteous person is allowed to suffer because G-d doesn't want to hinder free will.

The commentaries maintain that Joseph's brothers decreed a death sentence on him, acting as a legal Jewish court. A number of reasons are offered for this:

  • Joseph was guilty of false prophecy in his dreams.
  • Joseph's dreams advocated a monarchy, which based on their experience, the brothers felt would be destructive to the spiritual nature of the Jewish people. They had witnessed Nimrod, Avimelech and the Pharaohs - all of them despotic dictators who set themselves up as demi-gods. The brothers felt that Joseph's dreams advocated a monarchy of that type.
The brothers thought that attempting to kill Joseph held no risk: If he were a true prophet, G-d would protect him, but if they succeeded in killing him, it would be evidence of his evil nature.

Reuven argued that this would prove nothing, since G-d lets human free-will take its course. The brothers accepted this argument and instead threw Joseph in the pit, leaving his fate to Divine Providence.

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