Yehonatan Ben Israel

Days of Awe: ‘May Reuven Live and Not Die’

“Reuven, you are my first born, my strength and my initial vigor…”–Genesis 49:3

“May Reuven live and not die…”–Deuteronomy 33:6

In Moses’ last day on earth, Deuteronomy 33 describes Moses gathering the tribes of Israel around for a final blessing before he finally leaves them after more than forty years of being their prophet, their teacher, and their leader. One could anticipate, almost like a child waiting to open a present, what kind of blessing that their tribe would get from the greatest prophet on earth. Moses opens his blessings addressing Reuven, with a very quick an simple statement: “May Reuven live, and not die. May he be included in the count.” I can imagine myself being part of the tribe of Reuven getting a little bit of a buzz kill out of something that sounds so simple. “OK, that’s great, I get a blessing to live, not to die, and still be counted… Could I get a little more maybe though? A little more concerning success or greatness? A little more description?

Indeed, at the simple level, such a blessing seems trivial. Most of us don’t want just to survive, we want to make our lives count for something! Is there something deeper to this blessing than just simply saying, “Hey good luck! Hope you survive!”

In order to delve deeper into this issue, let’s ask two questions: What is the essence of this blessing, and can we get to know just a little deeper who this tribe is that is being blessed? Who is Reuven?

In order to answer this question, we go back to literally his very beginning, starting with his father Ya’akov (Jacob). We read in Genesis 29 that Jacob had worked seven years for Rachel, only to be deceived by his father in-law into marrying Leah, the older sibling. The night of their wedding, it is Reuven who is conceived under the shadow of this deception! Rashi comments on Ya’akov’s blessing to his son in saying “you are my initial vigor” in Genesis 49:3, saying that Reuven was literally Ya’akov’s first drop of semen–meant for Rachel, but entering into Leah.

Before we continue, there is something that must be pointed out as the main premise of this blog:

We human beings are bio-spiritual entities, down to our very first microscopic molecular conception.

We are brought about by thought, which turns to desire, which turns to creation. If this is indeed the case, what were Ya’akov’s thoughts that night in that wedding in which he was deceived? The answer: That his “initial vigor” was going to Rachel. Thus the “thoughts” of Ya’akov were of Rachel, entering into Leah–two very different women indeed. Thus, we see that Reuven’s was a soul destined for inner conflict and difficulty in finding his footing for his entire life. Indeed, it is extremely ironic that Rachel begs and bargains with Leah in Genesis 30:14-15 for the simply beautiful gift of flowers that little Reuven give to Leah… is it possible that she felt a distant connection to this little soul who was meant to be her son and not Leah’s? (Interestingly enough, after the discussion above between Rachel and Leah and the flower issue, the Torah no more mentions their conflict and competition, and they seem to make peace. Rabbi David Fohrman gives an amazing lecture/video on this called “The Power of Rachel’s Tears” on his website The one who albeit unknowingly and indirectly caused this peace to happen between both Matriarchs? Reuven!)

When we look at the sons of Leah, we find very spiritual tribes (Example, Levi who goes to the priesthood, Shimon who teaches children,  and Judah–a name that can be translated as “Confession”– and from whom King David comes from and writes so many amazing Psalms). When we look at the sons of Rachel, we find very earthly materialistic tribes. (Example, Joseph in Egypt as Viceroy of Egypt seeing the country and the world through a famine). Where does someone like Reuven fit in, considering the essence of his soul is so very strongly Rachel, yet he is raised in the environment and meant to play the part of the son of Leah? When we take this into consideration, we begin to have an idea of who Reuven is… Why he experiences such great inner conflict.

Thus, for someone such as our beloved Reuven who wears such scars of inner conflict, what is it about Moses’ blessing that is so very befitting?

During the Days of Awe, there’s a theme that seems to practically pop up all the time in out prayers–“life.” “May we be inscribed in the book of life,” “Remember us for life, King who desires life,” “inscribe for life all of the descendants of Your covenant…”

Life, life, life! That’s what we’re constantly going for during the Days of Awe. And yet, what does it mean to truly live? Is it simply just getting a good paycheck and nice vacation days next year with zero to minimum health problems? Or is it something more?

To give a quote from the Ari Zal, “Death is a descent from one level of existence to another.” (Quoted and sourced from Rabbi Abraham Sutton’s work “Dedicated to Mashiach Ben Yoseph and Mashiach Ben David.) If this is indeed true of death, then it is also true of life. OK, so there are many levels of life. What does that mean?

In Maimonides’ work Guide to the Perplexed, he calls G-d the “Life of the Universe.” Stating that He our Creator is our ultimate Source and Provider of life. If this is the case, then true life means to draw closer to G-d, especially in these Days of Awe. And this kind of life literally never ends because there is no end in drawing close to G-d. 

I met with a neighbor last week who asked me how I was doing. I told him I was pretty stressed from a bit of a crazy week with a lot of things happening. I remember saying to him, “Man, I’m just hanging on!” He said to me, “Keep hanging on. And it’s OK. We’re all broken.”

Like our beloved Reuven, we too find ourselves in so much inner conflict and pain and heartache. Reuven wasn’t perfect in his actions. Yet, according to Bereisheit Rabbah 84:19, Reuven became a symbol of teshuva in confronting his own inner battles and his effort at teshuva. Indeed, the rabbis see Leah’s words of naming him  as a strong play on letters in Leah’s surprise that “Ki ra’ah Hashem b’on’yi” (“Because Hashem saw my humiliation”) as “Reu-bein” (“See the comparison”). They state that in a way, Leah was unknowingly prophesying of the comparison between Esau who wanted to kill Ya’akov over the rights of the first born, and Reuven who not only didn’t want to kill Yoseph, but tried to save him. (Brachot 7B) Reuven stumbled. He fell. But he fought his inner conflict like a true warrior.

In our lives on earth, pain is a guarantee. And yet we too have  a blessing of life. Ever flowing life from our “Life of the Universe.” In the end, doing Teshuva during these Days of Awe, when we get to the very bottom of it, is trying to draw closer to G-d. To truly draw closer and closer and closer to life! There is still inner conflict, but we remember that at the very deepest depths of all that we are, all that we are going through, there is goodness. Thus Rashi comments on Moses’ Bracha saying, “‘May Reuven live’–in this world. ‘And not die’–in the next world.”

It is a beautiful gift that Moses gives in this simple blessing: To grow in life of drawing closer and closer to Hashem in this world, and to continue on in the next world as you draw closer in knowing Hashem for all eternity.

As it says in the last verses of Psalm 90, a Psalm that Moses dedicated to the tribe of Reuven, “May the bliss of my Master our G-d be upon us–may He establish our handiwork for us; our handiwork, may He establish.”

May we in our teshuva grow to know the bliss of our Master, our G-d… to live, and not die.

About the Author
Yehonatan was born in Dover, Tennessee, US. After converting to Judaism under the conservative movement, he made Aliyah, and converted again in Jerusalem under the Israeli Rabbanut at Machon Meir. He lives in Northern Israel with his wife, daughter, and son.
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