A Guarantee You Can Count On1
Reuvain said to his father, “You may kill my two sons if I fail to bring him [Binyamin] back to you. Put him in my care and I will return him to you.”
How reassuring could this have been to Yaakov? What was Reuvain’s point? What does the second phrase (“Put him in my care”) add that is not implicit in the one that precedes it?
Adding to our difficulty is a passing comment of the gemara that sees our verse as a kind of guarantor agreement in which the surety assumes primary liability. (In ordinary language this means that the guarantor of the loan is the person that the lender approaches for repayment – not the recipient of the loan.) Our passage seems difficult enough without getting it involved in arcane details of monetary law!
Actually, the gemara will turn out to be the key to understanding Reuvain’s intent. Rather than serve as an irrelevant distraction, the gemara’s observation points directly at a satisfying interpretive approach to our pasuk. As is so often the case, the connection between the text and the derasha of Chazal is strong and compelling.
Why was it Reuvain who made the first attempt to convince his father to relent and send Binyamin to Egypt? We will have an easier time understanding our pasuk if do not look towards Reuvain’s postion as oldest of the sons, as we are usually tempted to do. Instead, we will look to circumstances in the dynamics of the family prior to that moment.
The shevatim all understood that no tragedy of the kind that they faced occurs without reason. By now, all of them felt that something had gone wrong in the sale of Yosef that left them exposed to the judgment of Heaven. They could point to no other major faults in their behavior for which they felt vulnerable to Divine scrutiny.
Reuvain thus found himself in a privileged position. He was the only brother alive at the time who did not take part in Yosef’s sale, and was therefore without any potential guilt for it. He also knew, however, that when Divine Providence moves into a mode of Judgment, the guiltless are often swept up together the guilty. When some tragedy occurs, it does not discriminate between those who deserve it and those who do not. Reuvain understood himself to be vulnerable, so long as he acted in concert with his brothers. His best strategy in avoiding the judgment of Heaven was to abstract himself from the group, and to act on his own. He, therefore, was the one to independently approach his father and assume personal responsibility for Binyamin.
Yaakov, of course, knew of none of this. He harbored inchoate suspicions about Yosef’s fate; they were now joined to new suspicions about the role of the brothers in the incarceration of Shimon. As far as Yaakov was concerned, Reuvain was complicit in any possible wrongdoing to Shimon as well.
It was this double suspicion of direct wrongdoing that Reuvain initially addressed. He met a two-fold suspicion with a two-fold assurance written in bold letters: If anyone should directly harm Binyamin, my own two sons stand in his stead.
While Yaakov might conceivably have been moved by such a dramatic protestation of innocence and lack of malice towards Binyamin, it could hardly allay his fears. Bad things happen in dangerous places, and road trips are an invitation for the judgment of Heaven to be meted out where it might not ordinarily strike. Reuvain had to get past Yaakov’s concern for this as well. He thus follows his opening assurance with a second, distinct round: “Put him in my care and I will return him to you!”
The gemara we mentioned before seems to deflect our attention from the story line and refocuses us on different kinds of loan guarantees. If we believe that, we miss the entire point.
We could easily be lulled into thinking that Reuvain simply offered once more to be the guarantor of Binyamin’s safety. Chazal think differently. If Reuvain did mean that, then he would not be a guarantor at all! The commodity that was to be lent here was not money, but Binyamin! The brothers needed to “borrow” his presence in order to secure food as well as Shimon’s release. Reuvain needed Binyamin’s help as much as anyone else. If Yaakov agreed to Binyamin making the trip, Reuvain would become a borrower – not a guarantor!
Chazal, however, understood that Reuvain had already declared that he would be personally responsible in preventing any attempts on Binyamin’s life. The second part of his statement shifted to Yaakov’s other concern – Binyamin’s own vulnerability to Divine scrutiny while traveling in a dangerous place. In this scenario, the one being asked to “pay” was Binyamin himself, who might be asked to pay with his life for some strict requirement of midas ha-din.
Reuvain offered to pay in his stead. He would be the guarantor in the case of any demand against Binyamin. Moreover, his guarantee would apply even if Binyamin would have the “funds” – i.e. his life – with which to make payment. Reuvain offered to be the responsible party of first recourse, even in such a situation. In other words, Reuvain offered to go beyond the responsibility of an ordinary guarantor, who only pays if the principal defaults. Reuvain offered to “pay” midas ha-din even if payment could be extracted from Binyamin. Only a specific type of surety known as a kablan arrangement makes the guarantor responsible under such conditions.
Far from distracting us, Chazal’s seeing a kablan relationship in our pasuk lights the way for us to see the subtlety and nuance in Reuvain’s words. As usual, the comments of Chazal are laden with deep insight and perception.
1. Based on Ha’amek Davar, Bereishis 42:37
2. Bava Basra 173B