“Reuben returned to the pit, but Joseph was no longer in the pit. He tore his clothes [in grief].” (Gen. 37:29)
Where was Reuben coming from? Why wasn’t he together with the other brothers?
According to the Midrash, Reuben was “occupied with sackcloth and fasting,” as he repented for changing his father’s sleeping arrangements. (The word vayashov (“he returned”) can also mean “he repented.”)
The Midrash continues:
“The Holy One said: No one has ever sinned before Me and repented, but you [Reuben] are the first to repent. As you live, one of your descendants will stand up and be the first to urge repentance. And who was this descendant? Hosea, who called out, “Return, Israel, to the Eternal your God” (Hosea 14:2).”
This Midrash is quite difficult. There were a number of individuals who repented before Reuben’s time, such as Adam and Cain. Also, why does the Midrash state that Hosea was the first to exhort the people to repent? We find that the mitzvah of teshuvah is already mentioned in the Torah (Deut. 30).
It must be that Hosea informed the people regarding some aspect of teshuvah that had not been taught before.
The impact of sin is in two areas. Sin darkens the soul’s inner holiness. But it also has a negative impact on the world at large. “When the people of Israel do not fulfill God’s Will, it is as if they are weakening the great strength of Heaven” (Eichah Rabbah 1:33).
With teshuvah we repair the soul and restore its original purity. But the damage caused in the world at large — this is only repaired through God’s kindness. “I, yes, I am the One Who erases your transgressions for My sake” (Isaiah 43:25). The corrective power of teshuvah is a joint effort — partly by us, partly by God.
Nonetheless, it is possible for an individual to also repair the external damage. When one’s goal is to elevate all of society, and one’s teshuvah is focused on preventing one’s own mistakes from harming and misleading others — such an individual increases light and holiness in all of creation.
Reuben attended to both of these aspects in his teshuvah. First he occupied himself in fasting and sackcloth, repairing the damage to his own soul. But his teshuvah did not end there. He then “returned to the pit.” An open pit in the public domain — bor b'reshut harabim — is a metaphor for a situation likely to lead to public trouble and suffering.
After repairing his soul, Reuben returned and looked at the pit. He examined the damage that he had caused outside himself, in the public domain. He then worked to rectify his actions so that they would not be a stumbling block for others.1
That is why the Midrash states that Reuben was the first to “sin before Me and repent.” He was the first to repair not only his soul, but also that which is “before Me,” i.e., everything that God created. In the words of the Midrash, what made Reuben’s teshuvah unique was that he “started with teshuvah.” Reuben aspired to correct the external damage ordinarily repaired by God’s kindness.
Now we may understand the special level of teshuvah mentioned by the prophet Hosea. In the Torah it says, “You will return to God... and the Eternal your God will accept your repentance” (Deut. 30:2-3). This is the common level of teshuvah. We work to repair the damage in our soul, while God corrects the damage we caused in the world.
Hosea, however, spoke of a higher form of teshuvah. He described a teshuvah like that of Reuben — an attempt to repair all the repercussions of one’s errors. Therefore he called out, “Return, Israel, to the Eternal your God.” Hosea encouraged a complete teshuvah, performed by Israel alone.
(Adapted from Midbar Shur, pp. 191-194)
1 On a simple level, we may explain that Reuben sinned by upsetting the order in his family when he intruded on his father’s private life. He sought to correct this mistake by restoring harmony to the family, through his efforts to protect his brother Joseph.