One of the biggest themes in the Torah so far has been birthright. Since restarting the cycle of פרשיות, we, the readers, have been exposed to several generations of people making decisions, with the emphasis usually on the oldest, the בכור of that דור. It makes perfect sense why we would focus on the firstborn- as the oldest, they have an implicit responsibility to lead the next generation, and must therefore strive to be perfect role models (as a בכור myself, I can attest that, from a young age, this has been true, and I’ve always worked very hard to be a good role model for my younger siblings, in all parts of life). Some of these firstborns have fulfilled this perfectly- שם בן נח, when faced with the moral dilemma of his father’s intoxicated behavior, not only solved the situation perfectly responsibly; he even influenced his younger brother Yefet to also give his father the proper respect as they covered his nakedness.
Unfortunately, as we go through the generations, it becomes clear that not all בכורים have lived up to this responsibility. כין בן אדם, the original firstborn, killed his brother Hevel out of jealousy. ישמאעל בן אברהם was a bad and dangerous influence on his younger half-brother Yitzchak. And עשו בן יצחק was a violent, bloodthirsty, and dishonest person who (according to Midrashic sources) tried to kill his twin brother Yaakov. In each of these cases, the unworthy בכור lost his בכורה, with Cain’s going to Shet, Yishmael’s to Yitzchak, and Eisav’s to Yaakov, but as we enter פרשת וישלח, our eyes can’t help but turn to ראובן בן יעקב and wonder how he compares to previous בכורים.
Our סדרה follows the story of Yaakov’s return to Eretz Yisrael after a long stretch in Haran. He first confronts his brother Eisav and escapes unscathed, then Canaanites rape his daughter and try to assimilate his family into their vile nation, only to have Shimon and Levi demolish the city in defense. Then, Rachel passes away in childbirth, leaving Yaakov only three wives. Reuven then does something so extreme that the מפרשים don’t even know where to begin to explain it:
וַיֵּלֶךְ רְאוּבֵן וַיִּשְׁכַּב אֶת-בִּלְהָה פִּילֶגֶשׁ אָבִיו, וַיִּשְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל. וַיִּהְיוּ בְנֵי-יַעֲקֹב, שְׁנֵים עָשָׂר
And Reuven went and laid with Bilha, the concubine of his father, and Yisrael heard. And the sons of Yaakov were 12. (בראשית לה:כב)
What?!!! According to the simple reading of this פסוק, Reuven goes and had relations with one of Yaakov’s wives. This is already crazy enough, without Yaakov’s lack of reaction. How can we even begin to explain such an archaic and mysterious פסוק?
Rashi and Chizkuni, quoting the Midrash, learn this out as a positive reflection on Reuven. The Midrash writes that after Rachel’s death, Yaakov began to frequent his wife Bilha more, as his late wife’s maidservant reminded him of her. Reuven, seeing this and feeling outrage on behalf of his mother who was Yaakov’s main wife, switched their beds so that Yaakov would go to Leah instead of Bilha (who is emphasized as a פילגש), and this מוסר is clearly received by Yaakov (“וישמע יעקב”). Yaakov also forgives Reuven for his interference, because as the פסוק concludes- Yaakov had 12 sons, including Reuven who could have been disgraced from this.
This idea follows of a pattern of the Midrash to portray Reuven as a selfless child. In last week’s סדרה, in an equally mysterious story, Reuven finds דודאים in the field and brings them to his mother. Rashi, quoting the Midrash, teaches there Reuven knew these were fertility inducing plants and went against the instinct of every child (who would want less siblings in competition) to bring them to his mother, because he cared more about her happiness than his. So too, here in פרשת וישלח, Reuven’s selflessness is again shown by caring for his mother’s needs over his risk in such a bold move, and Yaakov saw this favorably by overlooking his sin.
In stark contrast, Radak explains a more simple approach to this פסוק by saying that Reuven in fact had relations with his father’s other wife. He may have tried to justify this by saying that she was a פילגש, though even this reasoning is far from clear or justified. As soon as Yaakov heard about this, he immediately took away Reuven’s status as a firstborn, for as the פסוק concludes: Yaakov had 12 sons, each of them equal (though Yosef who eventually rise to become the new בכור).
And so, we’ve seen two completely different approaches to the same פסוק, and to Reuven’s character. While we could delve more into Reuven’s future activity (how he tried to redeem himself by attempting to save Yosef, but may have doomed himself again by offering his sons in place of Binyamin to Yaakov), I would instead like to posit that Reuven’s generation was the first where the בכורה was no longer relevant. Allow me to elaborate.
In our סדרה, after a fight with a man (or a מלאך or himself, depending on how one reads the verses), Yaakov was given the name ישראל, which is confirmed by G-d at a later point. Then, G-d gives Yaakov a promise that was already given to many of his forebears, but with a twist.
וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ אֱלֹהִים אֲנִי אֵל שַׁדַּי, פְּרֵה וּרְבֵה–גּוֹי וּקְהַל גּוֹיִם, יִהְיֶה מִמֶּךָּ; וּמְלָכִים, מֵחֲלָצֶיךָ יֵצֵאוּ.
And G-d said to him: I am El-Shadai, be fruitful and multiple, for a great nation (of nations) will come from you, and kingship will come from your loins (שם לה:יא)
A lot of wording of this פסוק, as well as the next one, should be familiar to us: Yaakov is given the promise of Avraham and Yitzchak, of the land of Canaan, and of descendants’ leadership. However, the newly-named Yisrael’s blessing is a little different than his forebears’- he too is told that he will have many descendants, but unlike previous blessings, he is told explicitly that his offspring will be one עם, a “קהל גוים- a nation of nations.” Yaakov is in effect told that all of his descendants will be one nation- a big heterogeneous, ragamuffin people for sure, but a united one.
Based on this, I would like to suggest that our question of Reuven’s behavior and our attempt to classify his בכורות is no longer relevant. Starting with אדם הראשון up to and including יעקב אבינו, each generation saw a selection process, a “weeding out” of the bad and a choosing of the righteous who would merit to be the forebears of the chosen nation. The order of birth had an effect on that for sure, but almost all בכורים, especially towards the later generations, failed and gave up the birthright to their younger siblings. Until Yaakov’s time, בכורות was also נבחרות (A Hebrew word whose closest English equivalent is chosen-ness)- whoever was the most righteous in the generation became the forebear of G-d’s chosen people.
However, when Yaakov’s journey concludes with his renaming to Yisrael, and G-d’s promise that he will be the father of one nation, everything changes. All of the sudden, the בכורות doesn’t matter because all of the children of Israel are “בני בכורי ישראל- my firstborn Israel.” The selection process that has plagued humanity since minute one has suddenly stopped- the “weeding out” had given way to acceptance, because even if a child of Israel sins, he will always be part of the עם הנבחר, the chosen nation.
Reuven may have made a mistake with Bilha, and then again he may not have- we can’t know for sure, but what we do know is that it doesn’t exclude him from the selection process of the chosen nation, because, as we see afterwards “ויהיו בני יעקב שנים עשר”- Yaakov’s sons are still 12, even if one of them has erred.
This is an important message for us in our times, especially given recent tragic events. Chazal have many times taught that the 12 שבטים’s unique personalities are a paradigm for the wide spread of different people that are the עם הנבחר. There are the Levi’s, who are constantly involved in עבדות השם. There are the Zevulun’s, who are more involved in earthly, business matters. There are the Yosef’s, who take part in politics and help keep the world under control. We are all different, yet we are all chosen.
It is very easy sometimes to take a look at other Jews who are different and see ourselves as better- to declare ourselves the בכורים, the selected, the best, and the chosen of Yisrael. Our challenge, especially during trying times like ours, is to stay together and stay united, to remember that when it comes to נבחרות, every Jew is equal, without regard to color, observance, occupation and background. We are all G-d’s בכורים.
On the other hand, an equally difficult challenge is to remember that the idea of נבחרותis unique to only within the Jewish community. When it comes to those who are not part of עם ישראל, we cannot and should not be embarrassed to admit that we are the בני בכורי ישראל, the best of the nations. There is absolutely no merit, from a Torah perspective, to equality between Jews and our non-Jewish neighbors. This why it is extremely disappointing that Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Jewish State bill has been generating so much controversy in recent days, maybe even more from Liberal Jews than from the Muslims who it theoretically would have affected worse.
The law, should it pass, would simply remind the Israeli judiciary of the importance of Israel’s status as a Jewish State, something sorely needed as in its current operating capacity under the Basic Laws, Israel’s courts have made rulings that make Sharia Law seem biased towards Jews. The current bill is so watered down that all it basically does is equate Israel’s status as a Jewish state to its status as a democracy. However, this has not stopped the complaints about its undemocratic nature, for it somehow seems to give Judaism more rights than other religions in the Jewish state.
Whether this is a correct claim or not is a different discussion (I highly recommend this comprehensive analysis of the bill if anyone would like to understand how little difference it’ll make), but this is just a fascinating example of the opposite extreme of נבחרות. It is even a little sad that liberals’ over-acceptance of the western ideal of democracy has gotten so strong that the self-declared Jewish state, whose flag consists of the Star of David, is afraid to call itself the Jewish State. We have, in effect, put our needs behind the needs of other nations, a move, while admirable in its selflessness, is actually unsafe for national security and against the better interests of the Jewish People worldwide.
We must be proud of our chosenness, and we cannot allow democracy to stop us from embracing our status as בני בכורי ישראל. With Hashem’s help, all of the Jewish People will accept each other’s נבחרות, and take pride in our status as the עם הנבחר, so that we will merit the coming of the משיח, very very soon.