June 17, 2024
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The situation has become dire. An elderly father traumatized by the death of his favored son and the imprisonment of another child refuses to dispatch his youngest child to Egypt. If Binyamin doesn’t make an appearance in Egypt, Shimon will remain incarcerated by a merciless Egyptian despot. Almost as menacing, the chances of the family riding out the famine without food reinforcements from Egypt are bleak, at best. Recognizing the urgency of the situation, Reuven, the oldest brother and leader, reassures his father: He personally guarantees the safe return of Binyamin from Egypt. If he fails in this mission, Reuven offers to take the life of his two children.

This is obviously a ridiculous offer! Yaakov has seen enough suffering and lived through enough bloodshed; the added death of two grandchildren could not possibly offset the potential trauma of losing another child. If anything, watching his grandchildren put to death by his own son would be more disturbing than Binyamin’s extinction in Egypt. What was Reuven thinking when he made this outrageous offer?

Reuven is certainly a man of deep passion and of intense feelings. During the “hectic harvest” season most of his brothers were too busy reaping and collecting grain to sense Leah’s distress. Reuven, alone, has a soft spot for his forlorn mother and collects a bouquet of roses to comfort her. Likewise, the Gemara documents that, after Rachel died, Yaakov resided primarily with her servant-maid Bilhah instead of affirming Leah. Reuven, indignant that his father would favor a simple handmaiden over his mother Leah, rearranges his father’s residence. Twice we witness Reuven’s sensitivity to his “neglected” mother’s suffering and to the overall injustice of the complicated situation.

Passionate people “feel” their emotions very deeply. Guilt is one of the most potent emotions and Reuven senses his own guilt very deeply. Though guilt is absolutely vital for healthy social experience and of course for religious conscience, when it is all-consuming it can be emotionally draining and incapacitating. We have already witnessed how “self-handicapping” excessive remorse can become. At the fateful “pit scene” when Yosef was sold, all the brothers were completely deaf to Yosef’s pleas and only Reuven rescued his younger brother from a grisly death. To stall for time and delay the violence, Reuven suggests tossing Yosef into a pit. Mysteriously, Reuven departs the scene and by the time he returns Yosef has long since been sold off to passing caravans. Where did Reuven disappear to during these pivotal moments? Reuven is a “tragic hero”; his heart is in the right place but, sadly, he vanishes at the very moment that he can rewrite history.

In explaining Reuven’s disappearing act, the midrash depicts him as so overcome by his guilt that he withdrew from the “pit scene” to indulge in his grief and his shame. It is not clear whether Reuven was consumed with guilt over the Bilhah scandal or possibly was crippled by his guilt over the current treatment of Yosef. Either way, his guilt is self-destructive: While he ruminates over his failures, he misses an opportunity to fully protect his younger brother and return him safely to his father.

Apparently, this excessive guilt also “prompts” his appalling offer to kill his two children if he fails in his mission. Reuven is searching for any way to purge this toxic guilt even if it carries tragic consequences—such as the death of two children. Such is the nature of unbearable guilt that, in our search for catharsis, we sometimes consider self-crippling consequences—as long as our guilt can be ridded. In his rattled search for catharsis, Reuven undoubtedly noticed that his younger brother Yehuda, a ringleader in the sale of Yosef, had undergone his own catharsis. Yehuda lost two of his own children!! Though the Torah casts their death as punishment for their own sins, without question, it was also seen as retribution for Yehuda’s role in the sale of Yosef. Reuven covets the same catharsis that Yehuda achieved and imagines suffering the same fate: losing two of his children. As unspeakable as this tragedy seems, a guilt-ridden Reuven actually considers it and the emotional “cleansing” that this tragedy will produce. Though he obviously doesn’t welcome this tragedy, even the fact that he is willing to offer this option demonstrates how deep his guilt runs and how desperate he is to rid that sadness from his conscience.

Guilt cripples Reuven’s rescue attempts at the “pit” and it also seduces him into considering or even “inviting” a horrifying tragedy. Additionally, it also hampers his ability to manage a crisis. The brothers quickly realized that their current “quagmire”—being toyed with by this foreign tyrant—was, in reality, Divine punishment for their sins. They acknowledge that their past sins are now being retributed. However, Reuven is far more terrified and far more panicked. First, he blames the brothers by reminding them that he warned them against any harm to Yosef. Crisis management requires cooperation and unity-building; Reuven points fingers squarely at his brothers. He also “catastrophizes” the situation. There are many potential outcomes to this sticky crisis, but Reuven immediately assumes the worst: the blood they spilled will now result in their own deaths. Instead of maintaining calm in the face of crisis, Reuven quickly ratchets up the tension and fear by assuming the worst-case scenario.

Guilt is a vital emotion both for authentic religious growth and for healthy social life. Ideally, we avoid religiously errant behavior because of an inherent desire to fulfill God’s will. Sometimes, however, guilt protects us against forbidden behavior that we may otherwise have chosen. Additionally, guilt helps us absorb the shock of religious failure, process our culpability and dream of repair. A world without “healthy guilt” easily deteriorates into religious free-fall.

Socially, guilt can serve as an “inhibitor” against destructive behavior; it may also serve as a springboard for improved behavior. Additionally, when we sense our own guilt, we tend to feel more humble and less judgmental of others.

However, disproportionate guilt can also become self-destructive. The religious journey is long and fraught with failures; it demands of us the ability to sense guilt but not be drained by it. Instead of hiding from our failures we are meant to repair the damage we caused. Instead of sabotaging our future and inviting catastrophe, we are challenged to continue believing in ourselves and continue viewing our future optimistically. Instead of panicking during a crisis and assuming the worst we are meant to maintain level-headedness.

Healthy ability to accept guilt without being crushed by it is, generally, a sign of a healthy religious inner world.


The writer is a rabbi at Yeshivat Har Etzion/Gush, a hesder yeshiva. He has semicha and a BA in computer science from Yeshiva University as well as a master’s degree in English literature from the City University of New York.

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