‘The Chamber of Secrets[1]’ Parashat Vayishlach 5781

While the Book of Bereishit is studied in nearly every Jewish Primary School, Parashat Vayishlach contains two episodes that are not meant for children and are hence, more often than not, left out of the curriculum. The first episode is the kidnapping and rape of Jacob’s daughter, Dinah, and her ensuing rescue by her brothers, Shimon and Levi, in which they ruthlessly slaughter an entire town. The second episode, which is no less lurid, is summed up in one verse [Bereishit 35:22]: “While Israel stayed in that land, Reuben went and lay with Bilhah, his father’s concubine; and Israel found out.” Jacob – Israel – had four wives: Rachel and Leah, and their handmaidens, Bilhah and Zilpah. The Torah seems to be telling us that Reuben, Jacob’s first born, committed adultery with his step-mother, Bilhah. Jacob discovers what happened and apparently does nothing. Jewish children typically learn about these two episodes only in High School.

In this lesson we will be looking at the second episode. How could Reuven have committed such a heinous crime? The Talmud in Tractate Shabbat [55b] teaches that Reuven did not actually commit adultery[2] with Bilhah. The Talmud asserts that “Anyone who says that Reuven sinned is mistaken”. The Talmud proves its assertion by noting that the verse describing Reuven’s sin ends with the words “The children of Israel were twelve”, meaning that all twelve of Jacob’s sons, including Reuven, were equal in righteousness. What Reuven did, teaches the Talmud, was to relocate his father’s bed. While Rachel was still alive, Jacob’s bed was always located in her tent. After Rachel died, Jacob moved his bed to Bilhah’s tent. In protest, Reuven moved Jacob’s bed to where it “belonged”, in the tent of his mother, Leah. The Talmud explains Reuven’s rationale: “If my mother’s sister was her rival, is that any reason why the handmaiden of my mother’s sister should also become a rival to her!” The Talmud concludes that even though Reuven did not actually engage in forbidden relations with Bilhah, “the verse ascribes to him liability for his action as if he had actually lain with her”. The fact that Reuven committed a lesser sin can also explain why Jacob did not excoriate him the same way he excoriated Shimon and Levi after they murdered the entire town of Shechem.

Rabbi Eliyahu Zini, who served as the Rabbi of the Technion when I studied there in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, notes that the Talmud specifically states that “Anyone who says that Reuven sinned is mistaken”. It does not say, “Reuven did not sin”. Rav Zini explains that we have a natural tendency to bring biblical figures down to our level instead of raising ourselves to their level. The Talmud suggests that we should think twice before criticizing Reuven. While Reuven might very well have sinned, publicizing his sin is considered improper behavior[3]. Bilhah’s tent must remain a chamber of secrets.

Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveichik, the leader of North American Jewry in the last century, explains that while Reuven might not have committed adultery, his sin was far worse than he could ever have imagined. Two chapters down the road, when Jacob’s sons sell their brother, Joseph, into slavery, Reuven is noticeably absent. Rashi, the most famous of the medieval commentators, who lived in France in the eleventh century, quotes our Sages in the Midrash, who teach that Reuven was not on hand when Joseph was sold because he was “fasting in penance for his sin with Bilhah”. Rabbi Soloveichik connects the two events: “Why did Reuven choose this specific occasion to repent for that earlier act? Because only now did Reuven finally realize the staggering implications of his sin. After the brothers witnessed Reuven acting in a disrespectful manner toward their father in the Bilhah incident,  their own respect for Jacob declined… Reuven undermined Jacob’s authority in his own household and the ensuing loss of respect for Jacob by Reuven’s brothers ultimately resulted in their proposal to kill Joseph.” By openly disputing Jacob’s most personal decisions, Reuven empowered his brothers to take steps they never would have taken otherwise. We can take Rabbi Soloveichik’s explanation another step. Reuven, as the first born, should have had sufficient authority to prevent his brothers from selling Joseph. Indeed, Reuven tells his brothers not to actively kill Joseph, but, rather, to throw him into a pit and to let him die there of exposure. Nevertheless, after Reuven makes his suggestion, his brothers are silent[4]. Compare their reaction to Reuven’s suggestion to their reaction to their brother Judah’s suggestion that they sell Joseph to the Ishmaelites [Bereishit 37:27]: “His brothers agreed.” They accepted Judah’s proposal because they trusted Judah but as a result of the Bilhah episode, Reuven had lost his prestige and along with it, his brothers’ trust. The combination of his undermining of Jacob’s authority and the loss of his own authority led directly to Joseph’s sale, which led inexorably to the Egyptian exile.

Reuven is not the only one of Jacob’s sons who shows disrespect to his father. Shimon and Levi were guilty of the same crime. Indeed, Jacob chastises them with the words [Bereishit 34:30] “You have discredited me!” Yehuda Herzl Henkin, a contemporary Rabbi living in Jerusalem, writing in “Mahalchim b”Mikra (Journeys in Scripture)”, explains that Jacob’s sons’ mistreatment of their father did not grow in a vacuum. Rav Henkin’s proof is an enigmatic comment made by Rashi in his explanation of the verse describing Reuven’s sin. The verse opens with the words, “While Israel stayed in that land…” Rashi explains that this means “before [Jacob] came to Isaac at Hebron, all these troubles[5] happened to him.” What is Rashi teaching us that we do not already know? Only five verses after the Bilhah incident, we read how [Bereishit 35:27] “Jacob came to his father Isaac at Mamre, at Kiryat Arba – now Hebron – where Abraham and Isaac had sojourned.” Of course the Bilhah incident occurred before Jacob came to Isaac[6]. What is the innovation? To answer this question, we must recall that Jacob left home at his parents’ behest in order to hide from his brother, Esav, and to take a wife from Paddan-Aram. Due to extenuating circumstances, taking a wife took fourteen years but then Jacob stayed in Paddan-Aram for another six years. On his way back to Hebron, he makes peace with Esav. He can now come home but he does not. He sets up camp, first in Shechem and then in Sukkot. Jacob is already living in the Land of Canaan and yet he still cannot be bothered to return to his father who has not seen him in more than twenty years. If my wife and I drive within fifty miles of our children and we do not stop to visit them, we subject ourselves to their wrath. Jacob showed a tremendous lack of respect for Isaac every single day and his children took notice. Rav Henkin suggests that the reason that Jacob returns to his father only five verses after the Bilhah incident is precisely because he understood the connection between his own behaviour and the behaviour of his children.

We can use what we have just learned to add another layer to the Talmud in Tractate Shabbat. When the Talmud teaches that “Anyone who says that Reuven sinned is mistaken”, it does not only mean that it is improper to say that Reuven sinned. The Talmud could also be teaching that a person who believes that Reuven’s only sin was that he moved his father’s bed into Bilhah’s tent is mistaken. Our actions have ramifications, both long term and short term. This is cause for fear and for hope: If Reuven’s actions eventually led to exile, then perhaps our actions can eventually lead to redemption.

Shabbat Shalom and stay healthy.

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5781

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, David ben Chaya, and Iris bat Chana.

[1] Some of you might have noticed a trend in the names of our recent shiurim. I plan on continuing this trend, at least until Parashat Vayigash – I am not yet sure how to address “The Order of the Phoenix”.

[2] The Torah states [Bereishit 30:4] that Bilhah was married to Jacob and not merely his handmaiden, meaning that had Reuven slept with her, he would have been guilty of adultery and more.

[3] The Talmud makes a similar assertion regarding King David and Bat-Sheba.

[4] While Reuven’s brothers do throw Joseph into the pit as Reuven suggested, it could be that this was what they had planned to do from the outset. When they say [Bereishit 37:20] “Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits”, they mean “let us kill him by throwing him into one of the pits.”

[5] Rashi’s use of the term “all of these troubles (kol eleh)” is troubling. The only “trouble” mentioned in the verse is Reuven’s laying with Bilhah. It is unclear to what other troubles is Rashi referring.

[6] While the Torah is not always written in chronological order (“Ein mukdam um’uchar ba’Torah”), chronological order is always assumed unless proven otherwise.

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 2001 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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