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Thursday, December 6, 2007


Mikeitz contains a noteworthy use of a classic Torah tool: contrast and foil. Three times Reuven and Yehuda are confronted with similar situations yet respond from very different perspectives.

1. Mechirat Yosef: Reuven recommends leaving Yosef to passively die, so as to not be guilty of his murder. Yehuda is against any form of murder and advises that Yosef merely be sold.
2. Bringing Binyamin to Mitzraim: For compensation in case Binyamin is harmed, Reuven pledges to kill his own two son's, while Yehuda makes himself – and only himself – completely responsible if something goes awry.
3. Trouble in Egypt: When the brothers connect their problems in Egypt to their guilt for selling Yosef, Reuven distances himself from the group, blaming everyone but himself. Yehuda likewise separates himself from his brothers, but in leading the way out of their troubles.

At first glance, the contrast is clear: Yehuda's altruism versus Reuven's self-interest. In each case of crisis, Reuven sacrifices others in order to clear his own name, while Yehuda focuses on actually aiding those in danger. Even if Reuven secretly plans on saving Yosef from the pit ("but lay no hand upon him") we suspect him of doing it for his own glory ("that he might deliver him out of their hand, to restore him to his father").

It's possible, however, to see something deeper than simple self-absorption. It's possible to see a motivating force that touches upon one of Sefer Breishit's most prominent themes.

Names in Tanach often communicate important messages about their owner, to the point that it is often difficult to distinguish between actual name and descriptive moniker. (See Rashi on Malachi 1:1) Reuven is a case in point:

לב וַתַּהַר לֵאָה וַתֵּלֶד בֵּן, וַתִּקְרָא שְׁמוֹ רְאוּבֵן: כִּי אָמְרָה, כִּי-רָאָה יְהוָה בְּעָנְיִי--כִּי עַתָּה, יֶאֱהָבַנִי אִישִׁי.
32 And Leah conceived, and bore a son, and she called his name Reuben; for she said: 'Because the LORD hath looked upon my affliction; for now my husband will love me.'

From his very conception, Reuven is constructed as a tool to win for Leah Yaakov's love and preference. In many ways, Reuven’s life shadows this burning desire. In fact, within this very birth narrative, we get our first glimpse of Reuven:

יד וַיֵּלֶךְ רְאוּבֵן בִּימֵי קְצִיר-חִטִּים, וַיִּמְצָא דוּדָאִים בַּשָּׂדֶה, וַיָּבֵא אֹתָם, אֶל-לֵאָה אִמּוֹ; וַתֹּאמֶר רָחֵל, אֶל-לֵאָה, תְּנִי-נָא לִי, מִדּוּדָאֵי בְּנֵךְ. טז וַיָּבֹא יַעֲקֹב מִן-הַשָּׂדֶה, בָּעֶרֶב, וַתֵּצֵא לֵאָה לִקְרָאתוֹ וַתֹּאמֶר אֵלַי תָּבוֹא, כִּי שָׂכֹר שְׂכַרְתִּיךָ בְּדוּדָאֵי בְּנִי; וַיִּשְׁכַּב עִמָּהּ, בַּלַּיְלָה הוּא.
14 And Reuben went in the days of wheat harvest, and found mandrakes in the field, and brought them unto his mother Leah. Then Rachel said to Leah: 'Give me, I pray thee, of thy son's mandrakes.'
16 And Jacob came from the field in the evening, and Leah went out to meet him, and said: 'Thou must come in unto me; for I have surely hired thee with my son's mandrakes.' And he lay with her that night.

Reuven's help allows Leah to get ‘one up’ on Rachel. Leah trades the mandrakes for Rachel’s time with Yaacov. It's important to note that this represents more than just Leah’s wish to conceive, but a symbolic attempt to usurp Rachel’s place by Yaacov’s side. Through Reuven's handiwork, using “Reuven's mandrakes” (15,16), she acquires Yaakov's time and seed from Rachel.

Even after Rachel's death, Reuven's participation in the rivalry continues- in fact, with Yaakov's old favorite lost forever, Reuven's advocacy reaches its peak. Reuben’s licentious act with Bilhah occurs immediately after Rachel's passing, within the very same Parsha (paragraph):

כ וַיַּצֵּב יַעֲקֹב מַצֵּבָה, עַל-קְבֻרָתָהּ--הִוא מַצֶּבֶת קְבֻרַת-רָחֵל, עַד-הַיּוֹם.
כא וַיִּסַּע, יִשְׂרָאֵל; וַיֵּט אָהֳלֹה, מֵהָלְאָה לְמִגְדַּל-עֵדֶר.
כב וַיְהִי, בִּשְׁכֹּן יִשְׂרָאֵל בָּאָרֶץ הַהִוא, וַיֵּלֶךְ רְאוּבֵן וַיִּשְׁכַּב אֶת-בִּלְהָה פִּילֶגֶשׁ אָבִיו, וַיִּשְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל
20 And Jacob set up a pillar upon her grave; the same is the pillar of Rachel's grave unto this day.
21 And Israel journeyed, and spread his tent beyond Migdal-eder.
22 And it came to pass, while Israel dwelt in that land, that Reuben went and lay with Bilhah his father's concubine; and Israel heard of it.

The proximity of the two stories can not be ignored. With Rachel out of the way, Bilha is the only threat standing between Leah and Yaakov. Reuben’s disreputable actions with her insure that Bilha will never be Yaakov's preferred mate.

What comes out is a Reuven completely rooted in the mindset of Bechira (selection). From his point of view, the pattern of a selected and rejected son still applies. Looking back at Yitzkhak-Yishmael and Esav-Yaakov there is no reason to assume that the patter of sons battling for succession is over. One son – or group of sons – shall continue Yaakov's line, while the others will fall into perpetual other-dom. Reuven follows a consistent pattern: trying to win selection for Leah and himself:

1. He attempts a secret, heroic rescue of Yosef to gain favor in his father's eyes.
2.He attempts to shift blame for Mekhirat Yosef onto the other brothers.
3.In trying to persuade Yaakov to intrust him with Binyamin's safety, he offers the best possible collateral: the death of his two sons will leave Reuven childless and physically incapable of continuing Yaakov's heritage. Someone else will be selected.


Chana said...

This is awesome. Interesting that Leah's motivation for a name would create Reuven as a tool - to the point where he would do away with Bilhah's credibility so that Leah is the primary wife. One question; why is Zilpah not considered a threat at all? You would think Reuven should do something against her too, no?

SimchaGross said...

Zilpah is Leah's servant. You would assume that Yaacov would have more affection (or at least a more formal obligation) towards the original wife.