When Reuven convinces his brothers not to kill Joseph, but to cast him in the pit instead, it is ostensibly to return later and save Joseph. Nevertheless, Reuven’s act of mercy is
not without self-interest, as the Midrash hints (Bereishit Rabbah) when it interprets Reuven’s later return to the pit as an act of Teshuvah.
The Kotzker finds a problem in this Midrash, for it praises Reuven as being the very first man to repent. Hadn’t both Adam and Cain already preceded Reuven in the act repentance?
Not with the unprecedented subtlety of Reuven’s Teshuvah, is the Kotzker’s answer. Reuven perceived that his act of mercy was inwardly dictated by a fear of being blamed for Joseph’s death: as the first-born, he would be held responsible by Jacob (Leaping Souls: Ch. 1).
It takes courage not to get carried away in an act that seems noble at first sight; but instead, to examine our true motivations and appraise the reasons lurking behind the act.
The Ramchal, in Mesilat Yesharim (Ch. 3) describes it as the process of ‘mishmush’, ‘feeling’; the importance of determining whether our good actions involve any impurities.
It can be painful to take an honest look at our intentions when we perform good deeds, when we learn, when we fight for different causes. However, if this introspection leads us to shed away the layers of self-interest and other negative motivations we might have, we will uncover the truest and brightest of lights.
And even if in the end, it only amounts to a small cruet of pure, holy, sealed oil; who knows how long it will last us for…