Ari Sacher

“A Son is Born” Parashat Vayetze 5784

Through a sleight of hand of his devious uncle, Laban, Jacob ends up marrying both Leah and Rachel. Nevertheless, Rachel was his first choice and Leah knew that full well. To compensate for Jacob’s lack of affection, G-d blesses Leah with children while Rachel remains barren. Leah gives her first three sons names that reflect her feelings of neglect. She calls her first son Reuben, saying [Bereishit 29:32] “Because G-d has seen (ra’ah) my affliction, for now my husband will love me.” She calls her second son Simon, saying [Bereishit 29:33] “Since G-d has heard (shama) that I am hated, He gave me this one too.” Her third child she calls Levi, saying [Bereishit 29:34] “Now this time my husband will finally accompany (yilaveh) me, for I have borne him three sons.” What pathos! Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned[1]. Apparently, Leah eventually reconciles herself with her fate, naming her fourth son Judah [Bereishit 29:35]: “This time, I will thank (odeh) G-d!”

Let us take a closer look at the name “Reuben.” The Talmud in Tractate Berachot [7b] brings another interpretation of the source of the name:

“Reuben’s name should be considered a prophecy by Leah, as Leah said: See [re’u] the difference between my son [beni] and the son of my father-in-law, Esau. Even though Esau knowingly sold his birthright to his brother Jacob, as it is written [Bereishit 25:33]: ‘He sold his birthright to Jacob,’ nonetheless, behold what is written about him [Bereishit 27:41]: ‘Esau hated Jacob.’ Esau was angry not only over Isaac’s blessing, but he was angry about another matter as well, as it is written [Bereishit 27:36]: ‘He said, ‘Is he not rightly named Jacob, for he has supplanted me twice? He took my birthright, and behold, now he has taken my blessing.” Despite having sold his birthright, he refused to relinquish it. [Compare this behaviour with that of] my son, Reuben, even though Joseph took his birthright from him by force, as it is written [I Chronicles 5:1]: ‘The sons of Reuben the firstborn of Israel, for he was the firstborn; but, since he defiled his father’s bed, his birthright was given to the sons of Joseph, son of Israel.’ Nevertheless, [Reuben] was not jealous of [Joseph], as it is written when Joseph’s brothers sought to kill him [Bereishit 37:21]: ‘Reuben heard and he saved him from their hands, saying ‘Let us not take his life.’’”

According to the Talmud, Leah gives Reuben his name based on events that would happen in the future. She calls him “Reuben” – “See! My son” – because he was different than Esau. Esau could not handle rejection while her son would embrace it graciously.

Why is the Talmud sufficiently unsatisfied with the simple understanding of the verse that it feels that it must bring an explanation that requires Leah to possess great prophetic powers? Rabbi Jacob ben Joseph Reischer[2], writing in the “Ein Yaakov,” notes that Reuben is the only one of Leah’s sons who is given his name before the impetus for the name is given[3]. This alludes to an additional source of significance of the name. Rabbi Enoch Zundel ben Joseph[4], writing in the “Etz Yossef,” asserts that had Reuben been named as per Leah’s explicit reason – “G-d has seen (ra’ah) my affliction” – then he should have been called “Ra’ahben” or simply “Ra’ah.” The fact that he was called “Re’u-ben” means that Leah is addressing a wider audience[5] and the Talmud’s explanation is meant to fill in the vacuum.

Whatever problem the Talmud comes to address, it raises more questions than it professes to answer. Esau lost his birthright because he sold it outright to Jacob, but he was angry with Jacob specifically because Jacob stole his blessing from Isaac: “Esau hated Jacob because of the blessing that his father blessed him.” Esau was scammed and his anger was justifiable. Joseph, on the other hand, had his birthright stripped from him because of a grievous sin he committed: “He defiled his father’s bed.” Reuben had no-one to blame but himself. Further, there is a chronological issue here: Reuben is informed that he has lost the birthright only on the day Jacob dies. When Jacob blesses his children, he tells Reuben [Bereishit 49:3-4] “Reuben, you are my firstborn, my strength and the first of my might. [You should have been] superior in rank and in power. [You have] the restlessness of water; [therefore,] you shall not have superiority, for you ascended upon your father’s bed.” Reuben rescues Joseph from his brothers forty years earlier, long before he ever learned that his birthright had been revoked. At the time, he had no reason to envy Joseph and so his actions are unsurprising. In sum, the comparison between Esau and Joseph seems tenuous, indeed.

Before addressing these questions, we must ask one more question: Why does the Talmud compare Reuben specifically to Esau? Why not compare him to a person Leah saw every day – her father Laban: “My father was a cheater who tried to kill my husband[6] while my son saved his brother!”? Modern psychologists generally agree that the development of one’s personality is based upon two factors: nature and nurture. “Nature” refers to genetic makeup. Certain people are naturally prone to anger, others to happiness, some are naturally envious, others are generous. These characteristics are not learnt, rather, they are inbred, hard-wired into their DNA. “Nurture” refers to environmental influences: where and how we grew up. People who were raised in “the projects” view life differently than people who grew up in Forest Hills. In a recent study of juvenile delinquents, 66% experienced fatherlessness, 20% had never lived with their father, and 25% had an alcoholic father. It has been reported that fatherless children are anywhere from three to twenty times more likely to be incarcerated than children raised in dual-parent households. Leah’s children had every reason to grow up as juvenile delinquents. As far as nature was concerned, their family was a mess. On their father’s side, they had an uncle who willingly sold his birthright and threatened to kill their father, Jacob. Our Sages in the Midrash assert that Esau was already an accomplished murderer. Their father was a high-profile scammer who had stolen his brother’s blessings. On their mother’s side was their grandfather Laban – a master cheater and a would-be assassin. Murder and trickery ran in their blood. As far as nurture was concerned, they grew up in Laban’s home. They saw examples of his treachery on a daily basis. They watched as their own father overtly showed preference to one of his wives while scorning the other. They saw him resort to Laban’s bag of tricks to scam Laban out of his copious flocks of sheep. Leah’s children didn’t stand a chance.

When Leah names her first son “Reuben”, she is not saying “See! My son!” but, rather, “See! A son!”, Leah is telling the world that the fate of her child is not predetermined, not by nature and not by nurture. The Talmud in Tractate Shabbat [156a] teaches that an individual born under the sign of Mars, will have a tendency to spill blood. This tendency can be realized in a number of very different ways, however, which are subject to an individual’s choice. Options might be a soldier, a surgeon, a murderer, a ritual slaughterer of animals (shochet), or one who performs ritual circumcisions (mohel). The choice is his. Leah shows unbridled optimism. My son, she asserts, begins life with a clean slate. He can rise above his nature and his nurture. As Leah’s descendants, we are bound to no less.

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5784

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Sheindel Devorah bat Rina, Hila bat Miriam, Rina bat Hassida, Pinchas David ben Gittel and Esther Sharon bat Chana Raizel.

[1] It seems shocking that Jacob would allow his sons to be named in a way that places himself in a bad light. My son, Rav Amichai Sacher, suggests that Jacob was unaware of Leah’s pathos. As far as he was concerned, the names of his sons were infused with meaning: Reuben – “See, G-d has given me a son!”, Simon – “G-d has heard”, and Levi – “G-d accompanies me”. Support for this explanation can be found in Rashi’s explanation to Bereishit [29:34] “Kara sh’mo levi

[2] Rabbi Reischer lived in Ashkenaz in the early seventeenth century.

[3] “[First] she called him Reuben because [then] she said…” This answer is also given by the Vilna Gaon.

[4] Rabbi Enoch lived in Bialystok, Poland, in the eighteenth century.

[5]Ra’ah” is in the singular past tense: “He saw”. “Re’u” is in the plural imperative tense: “See!”.

[6] See Bereishit [31:29] and the Pesach Haggadah “Arami oved avi”.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2000 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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