וַיָּשָׁב רְאוּבֵן אֶל הַבּוֹר
And Reuven returned to the pit
Yosef’s brothers were jealous. It started with their father Yaakov showing him favoritism, and now he was dreaming of himself ruling over his brothers. Thinking that Yosef was attempting to become a fourth forefather, while sending the rest of them the way of Esav, Yishmael, and Avraham’s other children, they convened a Bet Din, and sentenced him to death. They planned to kill him, and dispose of his body in any one of the vermin-infested pits nearby. Reuven, however, was unsure of their conclusion and suggested that instead of killing him, they should just drop him into a pit, and let nature take it’s course. Reuven planned on coming back later and saving him. They dropped Yosef into a pit, and then changed their minds and sold him.
The Torah continues and tells us that Reuven “returned”, and was distraught upon finding the pit empty. It seems that Reuven was not present for the sale of Yosef. The Midrash tells us that Reuven went home in the meantime, for he was busy with “sackcloth and fasting”, he was doing teshuvah for his improper deed (in last week’s parashah). The Midrash continues that Hashem was very pleased with this that Reuven “began teshuvah” (was the first to do so) and swore that Reuven’s descendant would inspire others to teshuvah. And so it was, Hoshea the prophet, from the tribe of Reuven, said “Return, Yisrael, to Hashem…” which we read as the Haftarah for the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
This Midrash however, needs some elucidation, for Reuven was not the first to do teshuvah. We know that Adam Harishon fasted for 130 years to do teshuvah for eating from the Etz Hada’at. Kayin too, did teshuvah for killing Hevel. Why then, is Reuven credited with being the first to do teshuvah?
The Ktav Sofer answers that Adam and Kayin’s teshuvah were incomparable to Reuven’s. Adam and Kayin both sinned very early in their lives, before they were otherwise tzaddikim, they couldn’t rationalize that they were OK anyways because of their previous good deeds. Also, Hashem punished them for their sins, and they were afraid of further punishment. Reuven was a tzaddik. He could have excused his actions with the assumption that overall he was still OK. He also had not been punished, his teshuvah was not because he was afraid of further punishment, but because he recognized that he sinned. That was creating a wedge between him and Hashem, and in his love for Hashem he wanted to be as close as possible, and therefore did teshuvah.