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What's In a Name?
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So here is Reuven, right, Reuven is the firstborn, he's the actual firstborn. Now if we go back to our theory, remember that one of the things that bothered the brothers was that Yosef was being treated as the firstborn. Remember as we talked about before, according to Yaakov's view of this, according to father's view of all this, Yosef seems to be treated as the firstborn. So who should be most offended by that? Well the person who should be most offended by that is right over here, is Reuven, who is the actual firstborn, because Reuven is the actual firstborn, the real first child of Leah, the first child that's ever born to Yaakov at all. So if the brothers are defending Reuven's honor, isn't it interesting that Reuven himself takes a different position? Reuven himself is defending Yosef. He, among all the other brothers, is the one who tries to save Yosef and return him home to his father.
Now remember, Reuven's attempt doesn't actually work but it was an attempt, when the brothers were thinking at first impulsively, let's kill him, let's put his body in the pit, Reuven was the one who said, no; Al tishpechu dam - we can't spill his blood, let's put him in the pit and allow him to die. Remember, the Torah goes out of its way to say that wasn't what he was planning on doing, it was just an excuse so that he could get Yosef alive until the night; Lema'an hatzil oto - in order to save him, in the words of the verse. That he could bring him back to father.
So if the brothers are trying to save Reuven from the indignity of not being given the honor of the firstborn, it is Reuven who is trying to Yosef. Not only is Reuven trying to save Yosef, when Reuven finds out that Yosef has gone, what's Reuven's response? He tears his clothes in mourning, he comes back aghast to the brothers, and says, what's happened? We have to do something. Of course, the brothers don't do anything, the brothers ignore him and nothing comes of it. So again Reuven's attempts don't actually help Yosef, but his attitude is a really remarkable attitude. Reuven, the one most threatened by what's happening with Yosef, is the one who is actually going and trying to save Yosef, is trying to protest and is trying to do something - anything - to be able to save him.
Now I want to make the case to you that if we fast-forward a few chapters - we've been focusing mostly on Chapter 37, the actual sale of Yosef - but if we fast-forward about five chapters, and move over to Chapter 42 - Mem-Beis - and we go to the story which we've actually been talking about a little bit, the story about when Yosef overhears his brothers talking. This is when Yosef is in Egypt and he's disguised, he is this Egyptian official and he recognizes his brothers. His brothers are coming for food, his brothers don't recognize him. Yosef is able to overhear his brothers talking because he understands Hebrew and they're talking in Hebrew. The brothers don't know that this Egyptian official can understand Hebrew, and much less do they even know that he's in fact their long lost brother. Yosef is able to overhear their conversation.
Now if you actually look at that text, you find fascinating insights that the Chumash gives us, I think, into the roles of various brothers, including Reuven. Other brothers as well. You begin to see it emerge if you pay attention - close attention - to the words. There's a fascinating kind of series of wordplays that are playing off of various names in the story. I want to put the text up here on the screen for you. It's right over here. I want to challenge you to look at this text over here, look at these seven or so verses from Yud-Zayin - from 17 to Chaf-Daled - 24. I want you to read through this, pay attention to the names of the various brothers and then pay attention to various verbs and nouns that seem to be playing off of those names. Ask yourself, what sort of word picture do these wordplays paint for us in helping us understand a very close and personal portrait of what's happening here in the story from these various different brothers' perspectives? So take a look at that and let's come back and talk about it.
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