Reuvain did not want to join his brothers in murdering Yosef and contrived a plan to spirit Yosef to safety. In his ruse, he recommended to his brothers that they cast Yosef into a pit, unbeknownst to them, this was only to be a temporary measure; later Reuvain alone would return to the pit, retrieve Yosef and bring him home to their father. The plot failed. After Reuvain departed, Yehuda suggested that they sell Yosef into slavery, thus when Reuvain returned to the pit it was empty.
We can safely assume that Reuvain was unsuccessful at convincing his brothers to drop the matter completely and leave Yosef be without disposing of him. If so what was Reuvain thinking? Was this only a momentary reprieve? How would returning home later together with Yosef remedy the situation? The brothers still hated Yosef and even if Reuvain successfully rescued him this time, they would wait for the next opportunity to throw him in another pit without Reuvain’s knowledge where he will be unable to save him.
Reuvain was aware of one thing that the others were ignorant of, and it was this knowledge which motivated and assured him of accomplishing his goal. Reuvain was sensitive to the immense pain and heartache that Yaakov would have due to Yosef’s disappearance. None of the other brothers had calculated the intense suffering this would cause their father and once they realized this, they would never want to harm Yosef, despite their despise and disgust of him.
This theory is borne out from two statements: Firstly, when Reuvain returns to the pit he reacts by saying “The boy is gone! And I where will I go?” Rashi explains this statement ‘Where will I go?’ to mean the following: “Where will I flee from Father’s pain?” Reuvain was so distraught, he was brought to the point of running away from home for having a part in causing his father pain.
Secondly, the verse tells us “about that time, Yehuda was demoted by his brothers” what prompted this demotion? Rashi comments Yehuda’s brothers demoted him from his high position when they saw their father’s distress. They said, “You (Yehuda) told us ‘sell him’ if you had said ‘return him’ we would have obeyed you.” The brothers did not regret the sale of Yosef in the slightest, they still considered their actions righteous and it would be many years till they realized they were mistaken, but they did feel sorry about the anguish they caused their father Yaakov. This alone would have encouraged them to bring Yosef back.
Now we have insight into Reuvain’s plan. Reuvain’s plan was to leave Yosef in the pit, whilst the brothers come home with Yosef’s shirt covered in blood, misleading Yaakov into thinking his son had been mauled. Meanwhile Reuvain would keep Yosef alive making sure he had the necessities to survive the wait. Finally when the Brothers would perceive Yaakov’s grief, Reuvain would return Yosef where he would be safe, protected by the anguish of his disappearance.
Pain from a family breakup is worse then the pain in keeping peace.
Rabbi Chaim of Chernovitz (1760-1816) is famous for having written the Be’er Mayim Chaim a commentary on the Torah. Many of his expositions are based on the kabalistic teachings of the Ari.
Unfortunately for Reb Chaim one of his sons exercised his free will in a negative way and cast off his commitment to a life of Torah and Mitzvohs. The child knowing how deep his father loved him would frequently turn to his father for his needs, which Reb Chaim dutifully would provide, overlooking the anguish his child caused him.
The Be’er Mayim Chaim would use his own life as an example to intercede Heaven. “Hashem” Reb Chaim would beseech “I too have a child who doesn’t behave in the manner I would want; nevertheless I provide all his wants, please act the same way and similarly treat your children providing their requirements even if they don’t act as you would desire”.