This week’s Torah reading provides us with the first biblical account of forgiveness, which conveys a message that is universal in its application.

Egypt is the backdrop of the narrative. A terrible famine has struck the region, and people from all over stream to Egypt in search of food.

Jacob's sons, as well, have traveled from Canaan to replenish their stock. They hope for a quick and uneventful trip; but alas, their hopes are not realized. The stunned brothers quickly find themselves facing serious charges; they are accused of espionage.

Something is amiss. They detect it right away. The trumped-up charges are lame1, yet serious. And their case is being handled by none other than Egypt's viceroy!

Unimpressed by their denials, he passes their verdict: They are free to go home, minus one brother who remains as collateral. If they want him back they must substantiate their story by returning with Benjamin.

They're in a mess and they know it.

Religious men that they are, and staunch believers in divine providence, they begin to read into their strange circumstances. G‑d is trying to communicate with them, but what is He saying?

After honestly assessing their situation, they realize that their sin has finally caught up with them. Their involvement in Joseph's traumatic sale was never far from their minds, and they see this as retribution. Pay day has arrived.

In their words: "Indeed we are guilty concerning our brother, inasmuch as we saw his heartfelt anguish when he pleaded with us and we did not listen; that is why this anguish has come upon us."2

What happens next is shocking.

"Reuben spoke up to them saying, 'Did I not speak to you saying, "Do not sin against the boy?" But you would not listen! And his blood as well – behold! – is being avenged.'"

Broken down, Reuben apparently made two points.

The first one sounds a lot like "I told you so!"

His second point only added insult to injury: "Nice try! You're letting yourselves off easy. You're guilty, not on one but, on two accounts! As you yourselves confessed, you ignored Joseph's anguish. But that doesn't come close to attempted murder and kidnap, which you failed to mention in your confession!"

With his harsh rebuke, Reuben seems to have acted unreasonably petty and severe, not to mention insensitive and unsympathetic: petty for holding onto old grudges, and harsh for underscoring and even adding to his brother's culpability.

His brothers had just articulated their admission of guilt for causing Joseph hurt. That couldn't have been easy or fun for them. Especially when taking into account that their original actions were triggered by their deep pain at watching their father favoring Joseph over them.

As the oldest of the bunch, and himself a penitent3 (see What Makes a Leader? for the details of his sin and his repentance), couldn't he find it within himself to provide unconditional comfort and encouragement instead of harsh judgment?

True Repentance

In reality, however, Reuben was being anything but self-righteous. He was acting out of love. His admonishment was meant to be instructional and educational, not hurtful. And it was because of, not despite, the terrible crisis that they faced, that his words of rebuke were necessary…

Two critical ingredients stand between proper penitence and lip service:

The first is taking full responsibility for the entirety of the offense committed.

The second is feeling remorse for what one has done, not for the consequences he is made to suffer. "Circumstantial repentance," or repentance brought on by one's newfound circumstances, is at best insincere, and at worst facilitates future transgression.

Reuben knew this firsthand, for it was to him that G‑d said, "Throughout all of history thus far, no man has sinned before me and then repented. You were the first…"4

To be sure, Reuben wasn't the first to sin. Others had beaten him to that. But he was the first to truly repent.

But what about Adam and Cain, who lived long before Reuben, weren't they the pioneers of repentance?5 What was lacking in their atonement?

After Adam partook of the forbidden tree in Eden, G‑d asked him: "Have you eaten of the tree from which I commanded you not to eat?" Adam's response, which has since become popular among the male population, was: "The woman whom You gave to be with me—she gave me of the tree and I ate."6

Adam failed to take responsibility. Thus he lacked a vital component of true penitence.

Then we encounter Cain, who after murdering his brother is informed by G‑d: "Therefore, you are cursed... When you work the ground, it shall not continue to yield its strength to you. You shall become a wanderer and an exile on earth." Brought to his knees, Cain responds, "Is my iniquity too great to be borne? Behold! You have banished me this day from the face of the earth…I must become a wanderer and an exile; whoever meets me will kill me!"7

Feeling sorry for himself and his current situation, he regrets what he's done. Not unto his brother Abel, but unto himself.

He lacked true regret; the second staple of true penitence.8

Reuben was the first to repent proactively, not reactively. He didn't wait for anyone or anything in order to change his ways. Among all the references in scripture to his penitent path, no mention is made of any outside influence.

Additionally, he took full responsibility for his actions, though they were done to safeguard his mother's honor, not his own. Others in his place would have jumped at the excuse to be excused.

His unique contribution to the world of ethics and self-improvement stemmed from his profound realization: If he never took responsibility for his actions, he would never become a responsible person. If he never faced his shortcomings, he would never grow taller.

If it takes something outside of the sinner to elicit remorse, he isn't feeling remorse; he is feeling the pressure to feel remorse. His true self, which is not susceptible to external pressure, remains unaffected and unremorseful; forever tied to the wrong he has done.

Additionally, pressure comes and goes, and with it the remorse it brings.


Back to Reuben, who detected in his brothers' confession two breaches of proper penitence.

From his brothers' words, "Indeed we are guilty concerning our brother, inasmuch as we saw his heartfelt anguish when he pleaded with us and we did not listen," Reuben discerned a lack of taking responsibility on their part for the bigger crimes of attempted murder and kidnap.

To this he replied: "His blood as well – behold! – is being avenged." As if saying, "Own up to your transgression in its entirety."

From their subsequent words: "…This is why this anguish has come upon us," he recognized that their regret was circumstantial.

To this he responded, "Did I not speak to you saying, 'Do not sin against the boy?' But you would not listen!"

He was telling them to go back in time and really relive their misdoing. This is not about what is happening now, he was explaining, this always was a regretful deed—from the very moment when it happened, when I protested the dreadful injustice.

Instead of keeping silent out of indifference, he spoke up out of concern. G‑d had masterfully orchestrated this opportunity for repentance, and Reuben was not about to let them squander it. Instead of falling short of true repentance, he encouraged them to maximize and upgrade their penitence.

Reuben’s words, so timely and timeless, are relevant to us all when it comes to true repentance.

Even if one’s regret is sincere, repentance does not end there. For changing one’s future is as relevant to true penitence as regretting one’s past.9

But the beauty of repentance is that there’s always another chance.