Jewish teaching commands us to have love of G‑d, and also love of one's fellow. If a person's private piety makes him forget his duties towards other people, he is probably on the wrong track, and his actions could lead to disaster. This point is illustrated by the role of Reuben in this week's Parshah.

Our Parshah describes the conflict amongst the twelve sons of Jacob. Joseph, who was his father's favorite, had dreams of future greatness in which his brothers bow down to him. His brothers were angered by this. One day they caught the young Joseph and threw him into a pit. Reuben was the oldest son of Jacob. He was upset by this turn of events, but felt unable to influence his brothers' actions. However, he determined that later he would come back to the pit and rescue Joseph, in order to bring him home to their father.

This plan would have worked except for the fact of Reuben's personal religious piety which sometimes blinded him to the true needs of the moment. After throwing Joseph in the pit, the brothers sat down to eat. At that crucial time, Reuben should have stayed with them in order to ensure Joseph's safety. Instead he went away. Why? One reason given for this is because, as the Sages tell us, he had a private program of solitary prayer and fasting.1 Like many very pious people, he thought of himself as a sinner who had to repent. Unfortunately, he allowed his quest for personal piety to override his wider sense of responsibility.

While Reuben was away fasting and praying, the brothers decided to sell Joseph to some passing merchants. By the time Reuben returned, there was no way of catching up with them and getting Joseph back. Reuben was filled with grief, but it was too late. His private desire for religious fulfillment had made him forget the wider responsibility which the Torah imposes on each individual: concern for others.