In an article for Vayeishev 5774, Rabbi Cherki notes that private repentance can sometimes interfere with the progress of human history.
Reuben appears in this Torah portion in a minor but important role.
When he was born it is written, "And she called his name Reuben" [Genesis 29:32]. Rashi comments, "See the difference between my son and the son of my father-in-law." Reuben is different from Esau, Leah's brother-in-law. Esau wants to kill his brother Jacob, but Reuben for the first time in history is a firstborn who not only does not try to kill his own brother but tries to rescue him. As is written, "... in order to rescue him from their hands and bring him back to his father" [37:22].
However, in all the passages related to selling Joseph and the encounter of the brothers, Reuben appears as one whose rescue efforts failed. He proposes to put Joseph in the pit in order to save him, but the result is that he is sold into slavery. Where was Reuben while Joseph was being sold? The sages teach us that at that time he was "busy with his sackcloth and his fasting" – he was involved in penitence for his behavior with Bilhah, a failure of his in the previous Torah portion. Reuben was the first one to repent.
And this shows that private repentance can sometimes interfere with the progress of human history. The fact that Reuben was involved in his own private repentance prevented him from taking action in a way that might have changed history. Judah, on the other hand, appears as one who takes responsibility for the entire process. "What good will come of it if we kill our brother?" [37:26]. He speaks of the mutual responsibility of all Jews. "He is our brother, our flesh" [37:27]. Judah is not involved in personal repentance but rather in advancing the processes of history.
Excessive involvement with personal repentance, without any link to the general community, can sometimes lead to confusion. When the brothers and Jacob do not know how to react to Joseph's stubborn attitude, Reuben says, "You can kill my two sons if I do not bring him (Benjamin) back to you" [42:37]. Rashi notes that Jacob didn't even reply to this suggestion. "He said: What a foolish firstborn. He talks of killing his sons, are they his sons and not mine?"
When a person does not have an overview of the entire community of Israel, a viewpoint that encompasses the entire range of history, it is not easy for him to find the correct solution when bad times come. Similarly, when Joseph puts Simon in prison and the brothers begin to repent for selling him, Reuben reacts in a typical way. "Did I not tell you, Do not sin against the child?" [42:22]. This reaction, an example of "wisdom after the fact," does not lead to any progress. However, Reuben had good intentions, and therefore Moses prays for him: "Let Reuben live and not die" [Deuteronomy 33:6]. In the end, repentance with a pure heart – even though it may not contribute at that moment to the progress of the entire world – is added to a final reckoning and is taken into account in the matter of resurrection. Then the blessing of Moses will be fulfilled in its perfection: "Let Reuben live and not die, and let his population be counted."
Source: "AS SHABBAT APPROACHES" – a biweekly column in Shabbat B'Shabbato, Vayeishev 5774, Volume 1500. (Zomet Institute) See: www.zomet.org.il/eng