(Torah Portion Vayishlach) Switched

Reuven was the first-born son of Yaacov and Leah, and the first of the twelve tribes. Along with this first-born right came many prestigious positions: the priesthood, the monarchy and the right to a double portion of inheritance.

However, because of a questionable incident that Reuven was involved in, he forfeited these three positions with each one going to one of his brothers; the priesthood went to Levi, the monarchy went to Yehuda, and the double inheritance went to Yosef.

What did Reuven do to lose these positions? The Torah briefly and vaguely tells us that Reuven slept with his father’s concubine Billah!

The Talmud tells us that anyone who says that Reuven sinned is totally mistaken. This verse is not to be taken literally, because in the same verse the Torah states that Yaacov had 12 sons – meaning, they were all equally righteous, thus proving that Reuven did not sin.

Additionally, the Torah instructed all the Jews upon entering the land of Israel, to immediately proceed to Mt. Grizim and Mt. Aival and accept the laws of the Torah under oath. One of the statements they proclaimed publicly is, “Cursed is the one who has relations with his father’s wife.” It is impossible that the Tribe of Reuven made this statement if their ancestor was guilty of this sin.

During the era that the Jews were in Babylonia, the custom was that when the Torah portion was read publically, each verse was translated to Aramaic, which was the spoken language of the time. Our Sages instituted that the verse that speaks of Reuven and Billah was not to be translated, to make sure that the common folk do not leave with the false impression that he sinned.

A little background to explain what Reuven’s intentions were:

Our forefather Yaacov had two wives, Rachel and Leah. In addition Yaacov fathered children (Tribes) with Rachel’s maidservant Billah and Leah’s maidservant Zilpa whom he had taken as concubines.

Yaacov’s main address was with Rachel. When Rachel passed away, Yaacov moved to the tent of Billah, Rachel’s maidservant.

Reuven felt that this was an affront to the honor of his mother Leah – who was a wife of Yaacov and not a concubine – and quickly switched his mother Leah’s bed with Billah’s.

The Torah considers Reuven meddling in his father’s relations as if he was intimate with Billah.

Many years later, when Yaacov was on his deathbed and called his children in for blessings and instructions, he took Reuven to task for swiftly getting involved with his affairs, and how Reuven lost the prestigious positions because of it.

However, at the time the incident transpired, the Torah tells us that Yaacov heard; meaning he understood what Reuven did. Commentators point out that the Torah is stressing that Yaacov exhibited self control and did not lash out at his son.

Other commentators go a bit further and explain that Yaacov heard and understood Reuven’s ultimate reason for doing what he did, and therefore did not say anything to him.

The Torah relates that Yaacov wished to marry Rachel. His father- in-law Lavan switched Leah instead of Rachel. All along, Leah considered herself as an intruder, while Rachel was the intended.

Reuven knew prophetically that ultimately, the first-born double portion right was to go to Rachel’s first-born son Yosef. Since he knew that Leah would feel that she was to blame for this because she usurped her sister Rachel, he decided to preserve her dignity and have the loss of the first-born right blamed on his own actions; therefore he went and switched the bed of Billah.

Yaacov perceived Reuven’s sensitive intent and did not immediately take him to task; he also kept the beds as Reuven arranged them.

The Talmud relates that all his life, Reuven continually repented. For after reflecting on his actions he realized that he interfered with G-d’s Presence; since it was manifest in the tent of Yaacov and Billah, just like it was while Rachel was alive.

Wishing you a restful, peaceful
and inspirational Shabbos!
Rabbi Dovid Saks