Friday, December 1, 2017

Parasha Vayishlach 5759 Reuven

Parasha Vayishlach 5759
Rabbi Ari Kahn

While Parashat Vayetzei told us about Yaakov’s marriage and fatherhood, Parashat Vayishlach unveils some of the problems which Ya’akov experiences with his family, beginning with the long-anticipated showdown with his brother. This is followed by the episode of Dena, in which Yaakov’s anxiety and the difficulties he experiences are detailed. Ultimately, the contemplated fratricide of Yosef becomes the defining action within the family. In this week’s Parasha there is a short episode which seems to be stated in clear terms, nonetheless the exegesis has been debated throughout the centuries.

And it came to pass, when Yisrael lived in that land, that Reuven went and lay with Bilhah his father’s concubine; and Yisrael heard it
the sons of Jacob were twelve. (35:22)[1]

The verse has two difficulties- one in content, the other in form. How can we understand the tryst between a son of Yaakov and one of his wives? This type of behavior is looked upon askance, considered taboo in almost every society. How could Reuven have crossed this incestual boundary? The second question is not as striking, but disturbing nonetheless: After telling us of this deed, why does the Torah begin a new paragraph in mid-verse?

The Talmud is quick to answer one question while effectively solving the second:

R. Samuel b. Nahman said in R. Jonathan's name: 'Whoever says that Reuven sinned is merely making an error, for it is said, "Now the sons of Jacob were twelve", teaching that they were all equal.' (Shabbat 55b)

It seems fairly simple to state that the assumption that Reuven sinned is erroneous, but the text itself seems to state as much in black and white. The Talmud continues:

Then how do I interpret, and he lay with Bilhah his father's concubine? This teaches that he transposed his father's couch, and the Writ imputes [blame] to him as though he had lain with her. It was taught, R. Simeon b. Eleazar said: That righteous man was saved from that sin and that deed did not come to his hand. Is it possible that his seed was destined to stand on Mount Eval and proclaim, 'Cursed be he that lies with his father's wife,' yet this sin should come to his hand? But how do I interpret, "and he lay with Bilhah his father's concubine"? He resented his mother's humiliation. Said he, "If my mother's sister was a rival to my mother, shall the bondmaid of my mother's sister be a rival to my mother?" [Thereupon] he arose and transposed her couch. Others say, He transposed two couches, one of the Shechinah and the other of his father. Thus it is written, "Then you defiled my couch on which [the Shechinah] went up." (Shabbat 55b)

According to this passage Reuven acted in an inappropriate manner, but he was not guilty of the heinous crime of taking his father’s wife, merely involving himself unjustifiably in his father's personal affairs, is considered tantamount to actually have violated her.

His motivation as understood by Rav Shimon, was his mother's honor. It was one thing for his mother to have been displaced for Rachel, but quite a different matter to be displaced by her mother’s erstwhile servant. Deep inside, everyone including Leah, and her son Reuven knew that Yaakov loved Rachel more than anyone else. But once Rachel was in the grave, Yaakov should assume his rightful place in the tent of Leah. For some reason Yaakov disagreed, and with Rachel’s demise he moved his bed to the tent of Bilhah. Reuven set out to right this wrong, and earned eternal infamy for involving himself in “matters of the bedroom” which were not his business.

Despite this exoneration, the text does seem somewhat unequivocal. Additionally, Yaakov comments on this episode on his death bed in most unflattering terms.

Reuben, you are my firstborn, my might, and the beginning of my strength, the excellency of dignity, and the excellency of power. Unstable as water, you shall not excel; because you went up to your father’s bed; then defiled you it; he went up to my couch. (49:3,4)

Reuven’s failure is attributed to this action, he is labeled "unstable", and his status as Yaakov’s primary heir was forfeited due to this indiscretion.

THE EXCELLENCY OF DIGNITY, AND THE EXCELLENCY OF POWER: the birthright should have been thine, priesthood thine, and royalty thine. Now that thou hast sinned, however, the birthright has been given to Joseph, the priesthood to Levi, and royalty to Judah. (Midrash Rabbah - Genesis XCVIII:4)

The Midrash goes further and spells out the sin, telling us that the plain reading of the text is indeed correct.

PAHAZ (E.V. ‘UNSTABLE’) AS WATER (XLIX, 4). R. Eliezer and R. Joshua [interpret it differently]. R. Eliezer interpreted it: Pahazta (thou didst hasten), Hatatha (thou hast sinned); Zanitha (thou didst commit adultery). R. Joshua interpreted: Parakta (thou didst throw off) the yoke, Hilalta (thou didst defile) my bed, thy passion did stir (Za’) within thee. R. Eliezer b. Jacob interpreted: Pasa'ta (thou didst trample upon) the law; Habta (thou didst forfeit) thy birthright; Zar (a stranger) didst thou become to thy gifts. (Midrash Rabbah - Genesis XCVIII:4)

There is another passage in the Talmud which points to a sin as having occurred:

The incident of Reuven is read but not translated. On one occasion R. Hanina b. Gamaliel went to Kabul, and the reader of the congregation read, ‘And it came to pass when Israel abode’, and he said to the translator, Translate only the latter part of the verse, and the Sages commended his action. The second account of the Calf is read but not translated. What is the second account of the Calf? — From ‘And Moses said’ up to ‘and Moses saw’. (Migilah 25b)

The purpose of the Targum was to explain to the masses the meaning of the text, here we find a type of censorship, the act of Reuven should not be explained. The question is why not? All types of indiscretions are mentioned and taught in the text. The “fall” of Yehuda, taught in next week’s Parsha does not seem qualitatively superior, yet it is taught in the Torah, taking up an entire chapter, and we don’t find later Midrashic hesitations.

It is also interesting to note that the Midrash, locally, on our verse does not comment on the episode of Reuven, ostensibly adhering to the ethic of not delving into this episode. Perhaps this would be included in the Mishnaic prohibition of discussing sexual matters, “Sitri Arayot[2]. Only later in Vayachi does the Midrash delve into the act of Reuven.

There is a second possibility as to the reluctance of using the Targum, it could be that this opinion in the Talmud, disagrees with the Targum. The Targum Onkolus translates the verse literally, thereby accusing Reuven of this outrage. The Targum [Pseudo]Yonatan, states as per the Talmud that Reuven had moved his fathers bed. Perhaps as we had seen in the outset, whoever says that Reuven has sinned is mistaken, therefore utilizing a “mistaken” text would be inappropriate.[3]

However perhaps even this text which says that one who says that Reuven sinned is mistaken, does not mean to say that he did not sin, rather talking about the sin is a mistake.[4]

R. Samuel b. Nahman said in R. Jonathan's name: Whoever says that Reuven sinned is merely making an error, (Shabbat 55b)

The Zohar which maintains that Reuven did not sleep with Bilhah, does introduce a different motivation for his actions:

Similarly, in the case of Reuben, we should not dream of taking literally the words “and he lay with Bilhah”. What he did was to prevent her from performing her conjugal duty to his father, and this was the object of his disarranging his father's couch; and, moreover, he did it in the presence of the Shekinah; for the Shekinah is always present whenever marital intercourse is performed as a religious duty; and whoever obstructs such a performance causes the Shekinah to depart from the world.[5] So Scripture says: “Because thou wentest up to thy father's bed; then profanedst thou that one that went up to my couch” (Gen. XLIX, 4). Hence it is written: “that Reuben went and lay with Bilhah, his father's concubine; and Israel heard of it. Now the sons of Jacob were twelve”; that is to say, they were all included in the number, and their merit was in no wise abated.’ R. Eleazar asked: ‘Why do we find in this verse first the name Israel and then the name Jacob? The reason may be given as follows. Reuben said to himself: “My father was intended to raise twelve tribes and no more, yet now he is about to beget more children. Does he then wish to disqualify us and repiace us with others?” So straightway he disarranged the couch and prevented the intended intercourse, thereby slighting, as it were, the honour of the Shekinah that hovered over that couch. Hence it is written first “and Israel heard”, since it was by that name that he was exalted among the twelve hidden ones which are the twelve pure rivers of balsam, and then “and the sons of Jacob were twelve”, alluding to the twelve tribes by whom the Shekinah was adorned and whom the Torah again enumerated (176b) as before, implying that they were all of them holy, all of them considered by the Shekinah worthy to behold the sanctity of their Master; for had Reuben really committed the act mentioned, he would not have been included in the number. For all that, he was punished by being deprived of the birthright and by its transference to Joseph, as we read: “And the sons of Reuben, the first-born of Israel-for he was the first-born; but forasmuch as he defiled his father's couch, his birthright was given unto the sons of Joseph” (I Chron. VI). We see from this how all that God does is planned with profound wisdom, and every act of a man leaves its imprint and is preserved before the Almighty. For on the night when Jacob went in to Leah, all his thoughts were centred upon Rachel, and from that intercourse, and from the first germ, and under that intention Leah conceived; and we have affirmed that had not Jacob been unaware of the deception, Reuben would not have entered into the number[6]. It is for that reason that he did not receive a name of special significance, but was simply called Reuben (reu-ben=behold, a son). But for all that, the intended effect was produced, and the birthright reverted to the eldest son of Rachel, as originally purposed. Thus everything came right in the end, for all the works of the Almighty are based on truth and right.’ (Zohar, Bereishit, Section 1, Page 176a)

There are a number of issues of note in this passage, first, Reuven’s motivation is revealed, he is concerned about the twelve tribes. Knowing the story of the Rachel/ Leah switch, perhaps he feels inadequate. He realizes that he should not have been the first born and perhaps he even suspects that he should not be enumerated within the twelve sons of Yaakov at all. Ironically, due to this preemptive action he lost his birthright.

The second point of note, is that according to the Zohar, the second half of the verse is understood as well, out of concern that there be only twelve sons Reuven acted. Reuven’s concern with the number of children in the family could also be related to the fact that as first born he would receive a double portion, again ironically now that is lost, given to Yosef instead.

This is not the first instance where we see Reuven involved in an action which may relate to the number of children in the family.

And Reuben went in the days of wheat harvest, and found mandrakes in the field, and brought them to his mother Leah. Then Rachel said to Leah, Give me, I beg you, of your son’s mandrakes. (30:14)

These mandrakes were said to have procreative abilities; therefore, the barren Rachel was so keen to procure them, and is even willing to exchange her conjugal rights with her sister. Again, we find Reuven involved in activities, which would impact the number of children which the family would number.[7]

There is one more issue which may allow us to have deeper understanding of Reuven’s actions. Our text tells us:

And it came to pass, when Israel lived in that land, that Reuven went and lay with Bilhah his father’s concubine; and Israel heard it the sons of Jacob were twelve. (35:22)

The text clearly says that Reuven was with his father's concubine, on the other hand we were already told that Yaakov had taken her as a wife

And she said, Behold my maid Bilhah, go in to her; and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her. And she gave him Bilhah her maidservant to wife; and Jacob went in to her.(30:3,4)

What was the relationship, was she a wife or a concubine? Evidently, Reuven saw her as merely his father's concubine. This may shed light on his actions. In Jewish law a king is permitted to take a concubine. Perhaps this was Reuven's way of staking his claim on the kingship. If this woman who was his father's concubine was now taken by Reuven, it would indicate his usurping of his father's power, and stature. The punishment which Reuven suffered was threefold he lost the birthright priesthood and kingship. As we saw above:

THE EXCELLENCY OF DIGNITY, AND THE EXCELLENCY OF POWER: the birthright should have been thine, priesthood thine, and royalty thine. Now that thou hast sinned, however, the birthright has been given to Joseph, the priesthood to Levi, and royalty to Judah. (Midrash Rabbah - Genesis XCVIII:4)

The tragedy of Reuven, reverberates throughout these Parshiot leading to the end of the book of Bereishit, instead of being a spiritual leader, his position is auxiliary, he lost the leadership, he was apparently seeking, he lost the double portion he was apparently seeking and he lost the priesthood.

In the end, we do not know what was the sin of Reuven, yet numerous sources speak of the Teshuva performed by Reuven Perhaps this is the reason we are not to discuss his failures. One thing is certain, greatness is not something which we are born into - it is not a birthright. Greatness must be earned. It cannot be arranged, nor acquired by deception. Perhaps, as his mother had used deception, and his father had used deception, Reuven felt that this was his mandate as well. That he had to go create his own destiny whatever the means, the ends always justify one's action. Unfortunately for Reuven, that is just not so.

© 1998 Rabbi Ari Kahn, All Rights Reserved

[1] The text is written with this pagination, in the middle of a sentence a new paragraph begins.
[2] Mishna Chagiga 2:1, the term Sitrie (secret) is used in The Talmud on the same page.
[3] Parallel sources have instead of the word mistaken “Toeh” read “Chote”- sin, or “Shote” are foolish, this would lean in the direction that it is not a “mistaken” position, rather one which should not be stated. See Kasher in Torah Shlema note 93.
[4] I have often wondered what constitutes heresy believing an unacceptable position or stating it. See the Mishna in Chelek  “MISHNAH. All Israel have a portion in the world to come, for it is written, thy people are all righteous; they shall inherit the land for ever, the branch of my planting, the work of my hands, that i may be glorified.’ but the following have no portion therein: he who says that resurrection is not a biblical doctrine, the Torah was not divinely revealed, and an epikoros”. The same term “HAOMER” is used.
[5] The verse begins “And it came to pass when Israel lived…” the Rambam in the Guide, associates this word “lived” “Bishachen” with the Shechina.
[6] This idea may also explain how Yaakov could have blatantly acted in a manner against a section of the Torah, which prohibits a father from disinheriting the son of the hated wife in favor of the son of the loved wife. Yaakov, when intimate with Leah, thought he was with Rachel. Therefore, the Zohar maintains that mystically the firstborn was destined to be a son of Rachel.
[7] There is a mystical tradition taught by the Arizal, that Yaakov was to have had fifteen children,(shivtie Yud Heh=15) but Reuven’s action frustrated the plan, therefore the two children that should have been born via the relationship with Bilhah instead were born to Yosef.

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