There is high drama in the Bible this week as we read the story of Joseph and his brothers. Technicolor dream coats, sibling rivalry, snake-infested pits and attempted fratricide dominate the Parshah proceedings.

When the brothers plot to actually kill Joseph, Reuben, the eldest, makes a valiant effort to save Joseph’s life, and suggests that instead they throw him into a pit. That would be sufficient to teach him a lesson, and no blood need be shed. In fact, according to Rashi, the Torah itself testifies that Reuben’s intention was to save Joseph from his brothers and bring him back to their father.

But destiny had a different plan.

While Reuben was away, the brothers sold Joseph into slavery. When he returns to rescue him, the boy is gone and he rends his garments in grief.

But where was Reuben when the sale took place? Why wasn’t he there with his brothers at the time? Where did he suddenly disappear?

Rashi gives two possible explanations: 1) It was his turn to go and serve his aged father. The brothers had a roster, and Reuben’s time had come, so he was back at the ranch. 2) Reuben was busy doing teshuvah (repentance), with sackcloth and fasting, for the sin of interfering with his father’s marital life (as per Genesis 35:22).

I remember hearing the Lubavitcher Rebbe ask: According to the second opinion, Reuben left Joseph in the pit to go and busy himself with “sackcloth and fasting,” i.e. his own repentance for his sins. So let’s take a look and see what happens as a result. Reuben is absent, so Joseph is sold into slavery and taken down to Egypt. There he is imprisoned on false charges and, one day, rises to sudden prominence by successfully interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams. He becomes viceroy of Egypt, then meets his long-lost brothers when they come searching for food during the famine. After revealing his true identity, he brings his father Jacob and the entire family down to Egypt, where he supports and sustains them.

And that is precisely how the Jews became slaves in Egypt. It all started with Joseph being taken from the pit and sold to the Egyptians. Why? Because Reuben decided to be busy doing teshuvah! I remember the Rebbe thundering, “The whole Egyptian exile can be traced to Reuben’s ill-timed teshuvah! When a young Jewish boy is languishing in the pit, this is not the time to be worrying about your own spiritual state. That is the time to save a Jewish child!”

Of course, teshuvah is a wonderful mitzvah. In a way, it is the greatest mitzvah of all, because it can repair the damage done by failing to observe all other mitzvahs. And yet, there is a time to do teshuvah and a time to save lives. And when a life is in danger, even teshuvah really must wait.

The analogy of the Jewish child in the pit resonates powerfully today. It is about saving lives not only physically, but also spiritually. How many millions of Jewish children are at risk spiritually? And how many Jews, indeed how many rabbis, are preoccupied with their own personal spiritual upliftment and ignore the plight of young people “in the pits”?

It is a sobering thought, and one that demands a response.