All the brothers were convinced that something had to be done about the favored, arrogant, tale bearing Joseph. But opinions were divided. Some brothers wanted to see him dead. Yet others let their feelings of kinship moderate their feelings of hate. Listening to the dispute, the oldest brother Reuven tries to save Joseph from the advocates of fratricide (Genesis 37:21). He counsels his brothers not to kill Joseph but to throw him into a pit instead. It was Reuven’s plan to return to the pit when it was unattended and secretly rescue Joseph and return him home shaken but unharmed.
Reuven’s plan, however, was thwarted. While he was away his brothers sold Joseph as a slave to passing caravaneers. When Reuven returned to the pit, he discovered to his dismay that Joseph was gone. Bad timing altered Joseph’s fate. Had Reuven acted earlier, Joseph could have been spared his forced dislocation, enslavement, and imprisonment. It was not that Reuven was cruelly indifferent to Joseph’s circumstance; he indeed wanted to help. But the help he intended to give came too late.
In analyzing Reuven’s actions, the Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 34:8) muses: “If Reuven had known what God was to have said about him in the Torah – ‘And Reuven heard it and delivered him out of their hand’ – he would have picked up Joseph and carried him home to his father immediately.” In other words, had Reuven only realized that his deeds were being recorded for all time, he would have acted courageously and immediately. Writing in the eleventh century, the Spanish moralist Bahya ibn Pakuda expresses the insight inspired by the Midrash’s hindsight with the memorable line: “Days are like scrolls. Write on them only what you would like to have remembered about you.”
Although the theme is recurrent during the Days of Awe, it is applicable year round. God inscribes our deeds in a ledger. Knowing what He is writing about us should influence our conduct. All our actions – good or bad – are being noted. It is thus our challenge to ensure that what is actually being written about us is what would like to have written about us.