And Reuven said to them, “Shed no blood. Throw him into this pit…” intending to rescue him from their hand, to return him to his father. (Bereisheet 37:22)
Rashi: “intending to rescue him” – The Ruach Hakodesh bears witness about Reuven that he said this only to rescue him … He said, “I am the firstborn … the foulness will be hung on me.”
The emotional confrontation between Yosef and his brothers resulted in a dispute between Reuven and the others. The majority wanted to kill Yosef and put a stop to his dreams of grandeur. Reuven tried to convince them to take him back to Yaakov, but when all else failed, he suggested they throw him into a pit. The Midrash explains that the Ruach Hakodesh cried out approval of his plan and comments that had he known that his good deed would be praised in the Torah, he would have gone to greater lengths in his rescue effort.
In Gemara Taanit (21a) we learn that Rabi Yochanan and Ilfa were poverty-stricken Torah students who decided to leave learning to earn an honest living. On the way they sat to rest near a teetering wall. Rebbi Yochanan heard two angels conversing.
“Let’s knock down this wall on them, for they have abandoned the pursuit of the World to Come to seek the things of this world,” the first suggested.
“One of them is destined to become great. Now is no time to strike him!” the second replied.
Rabi Yochanan asked Ilfa if he heard anything and when he responded in the negative he assumed the message was meant for him. Rabi Yochanan immediately returned to his studies, became the leader of the generation and lived comfortably in this world as well.
We may now understand why only Reuven was eager to save Yosef. The verse says that when the brothers decided to kill Yosef, a Ruach Hakodesh cried out, “We shall see what will be with his dreams.” The Torah continues, saying, “And Reuven heard, and he rescued him from their hand.” Only he heard the Heavenly message and he assumed that meant the mission was his to achieve.
The Gemara praises Reuven, quoting Leah, “See the difference between my son [referring to Reuven] and the son of my father-in-law [referring to Esav, the son of Leah’s father-in-law, Yitzchak]. For regarding Esav, even though he voluntarily sold his right of the firstborn … he harbored hatred towards Yaakov … However, regarding my son [Reuven], even though Yosef took the right of the firstborn from him against his will … he was not jealous, as it says, ‘Reuven heard, and he rescued him from their hand.’”
The Torah praises Reuven even though his rescue efforts did not succeed and Yosef was taken down to Egypt, according to Hashem’s plan. We are told of his good intentions to teach us that good intentions should be pursued. Some may work out and others may fail; however, Hashem gives credit for the good thought regardless of results. When we see a difficult task that could result in a good outcome, not only are we rewarded for the thought, but we should not be discouraged by the odds. Even thoughts count in Heaven!