Yehonatan Ben Israel
Yehonatan Ben Israel

The Greatness of the Tribe of Reuven

“Reuven, you are my firsborn, my strenghth and my initial vigor, foremost in rank and foremost in power. Water-like impetousity–you cannot be foremost…” Genesis 49:3-4

“And the God of Israel incited the spirit of Pul the king of Assyria and the spirit of Tillegath Pilneser the king of Assyria, and he exiled them–the Reuvenites, the Gadites, and the half tribe of Menasheh…” I Chronicles 5:26

The 8th century BCE, was a time of great fear. The Assyrian empire, rose as the great super power in the Middle East, and those who fought or rebelled from paying tribute were given no quarter. The policy of the empire was complete ethnic cleansing or genocide to all enemies. There were no “rules of war,” any threat to the empire was completely eliminated on a cultural level. True, in the past millenia of the ancient Middle East, there had been empires whose policy had been as such, but never on such a massive scale as this. The Middle East was never again the same after the Assyrian empire. While in the past empires were set up and different nations rose and fell, never in the history of the ancient Middle East did an empire rise that completely wiped out every nation that fought against it.

Such was the tragic fate of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. To this very day the ten tribes of the northern kingdom of Israel that we read about in the Tanach remain lost, at least to an extremely large degree. Truly, the only cities that rebelled against the Assyrian Empire and survived were two: Jerusalem and Babylon.

Interestingly enough, I Chronicles makes an unusual, yet veiled statement about where the empire first attacked the Northern Kingdom. I Chronicles 5:26 says,”And the God of Israel incited the spirit of Pul the king of Assyria and the spirit of Tillegath Pilneser the king of Assyria, and he exiled them–the Reuvenites, the Gadites, and the half tribe of Menasheh…”

While there are other opinions, the Talmudic tradition (Aruchin 32b, a very strong source indeed) states that this list of conquered tribes is chronological–that first it was the tribe of Reuven that fell, then Gad and Menasheh. This territory was on the eastern side of the Jordan river, with Reuven residing the furthest south in the Moabite mountain range, east of the Dead Sea. While the Midrash states that these tribes were lost first was because of their wish to remain outside of the land of Israel proper, I also have to wonder. What would have attracted the king of Assyria to attack and essentially destroy the tribe of Reuven first?

Hang tight guys. I’m going to be going over a little bit of geography.

By any stretch, for the Assyrian Empire to attack the tribe of Reuven first would have been extremely inconvenient. It would have been a march starting southward from northern Iraq (From modern-day Mosul, which is the ancient city of the Assyrian capital Ninveh), then across the desert of the Anbar Province of modern day Iraq on the ancient caravan road, through the desert of modern day Jordan, and by then that huge army would have then made their attack–uphill into the Moabite mountains. Strategically speaking, it’s not impossible, but frankly, it’s pretty stupid and an extreme waste of energy and supplies for any military leader who would wish to preserve his army.

And yet this is what the king of Assyria would have done should he wished to attack the tribe of Reuven first. But why? There would have been far easier routes to take in the Middle East–none of which would have led the Assyrian army to attacking the tribe of Reuven first. Indeed, it would have made far more sense to have taken the ancient route known as the Way of the Sea, a far more convenient route for a large army. This route also would have led to attacking other tribes of Israel first, but not the tribe of Reuven. Again, it must be emphasized: in order to attack the tribe of Reuven first, the only route that the king of Assyria could have taken would have been the long strenuous route through the desert. This was the only way. Thus we have to ask, why go to such lengths and pains to start the campaign against Israel there? In other words, why did the king of Assyria see the tribe of Reuven as so important?

The answer I believe resides in the essence of who and what the tribe of Reuven is, and what he stands for, as well as the nations surrounding him. As we continue, keep in mind that every good conqueror applies himself to know his enemy thoroughly. These kings of the Assyrian empire would have been no less.

In Genesis 49:3-4, we read of Ya’akov blessing his sons. He turns to Reuven first, saying, “Reuven, you are my firstborn, my strength and my initial vigor, foremost in rank and foremost in power. Water-like impetuosity–you cannot be foremost…” (I.e. “You cannot be the tribe of kingship.”) Indeed, Targum Yonatan takes Ya’akov’s words to mean, “But because you sinned, my son, the birthright is given to Joseph, the kingship to Judah, and the priesthood to Levy.”

Wow. What a demotion. The implication that the original plan was that from the tribe of Reuven was to be the Birthright, the Kingship, and Priesthood of the nation. Truly, for Reuven, this must have been a heartbreaking tragedy… And yet, Reuven remained loyal to his father, his brothers, his nation (For more on the essence of Reuven as a tribe and individual, check out Days of Awe: ‘May Reuven Live and Not Die’).

In the Tractate of Brachot in the Babylonian Talmud, we come across an interesting statement about Reuven’s very name. The rabbis see Leahs words of naming him as a strong play on letters in Leahs surprise that Ki raah Hashem bonyi (Because Hashem saw my humiliation) asReu-bein(See the comparison). They state that in a way, Leah was unknowingly prophesying of the comparison between Esau who wanted to kill Yaakov over the rights of the first born, and Reuven who not only didnt want to kill Yoseph, but tried to save him.(Brachot 7B)

Interestingly enough, the tribe of Reuven’s location was the closest tribe geographically to both the territories of the nations of Esau and Ishmael–two older siblings in the book of Genesis who historically (and even today) have a difficult time with their own demotions. Indeed, should the nations of Esau and Ishmael have wished to participate in world trade (And they would have), they would have had no choice but to pass through the tribe of Reuven going northward on the King’s Highway. Indeed, the tribe of Reuven would have been their first point of contact with the kingdom of Israel. Thus Reuven showed a great example of humility to the two nations of the older siblings–should they have ever decided that it was their right to be the chosen people to carry on the legacy of Abraham, instead of the nation of Israel.

Thus the very existence and loyalty of Reuven sent a message to the rest of the world–that despite his demotion, he still chooses to be part of the nation. He humbly accepts his place. He maintains his steadfast loyalty to the other tribes even though he is excluded from a high chosen position.

This is unity through humility.

Are we beginning to see why it would have been so important to the kings of Assyria to have destroyed Reuven first? For the nation, it was Reuven’s loyalty that gave the ancient Israelite kingdom it’s legitimacy. Indeed, the tribe of Reuven sets an example to the rest of the world to be humble towards the nation of Israel, because it is easy to look upon a nation that is “chosen” and to be jealous. I believe that we can see this jealousy in Christianity and Islam throughout history, even today–whether it be through assertions of different types of “Replacement Theology” (The policy of both the mainstream church and Islam throughout history), insisting that non-Jews have been “grafted in” (As Paul writes in his letter to the Romans), “spiritual competition” which involves designating Jerusalem as a lesser of a holy site over another (As has been done in Islam), replacing Judaism with new/”greater” leaders (Like Jesus and Muhammad), or even accusations of being “blind to the truth” (As both religions often maintain). As hard as it may sound, the tribe of Reuven was a living example to the proud empires of the world and their ideologies that when coming into contact with the chosen people, one was to accept one’s place with humility and an open mind.

Reuven as a living example says to the Jewish and non-Jewish world alike, “If I have accepted my fate of a humble stature before my brothers, then so should you.”

Thus when the Assyrian king scrutinized the nation of Israel and her tribes, he saw that in order to break the nation’s legitimacy, it was the tribe of Reuven that had to go first. The existence, loyalty, and indeed humility of the tribe of Reuven before his brother tribes was the foundation stone for the unity and clarity of the nation.

As always, the question is what does this have to do with us today?

For the nation of Israel itself, all the way up to we the Jewish people today, the tribe of Reuven gives a fantastic example.

Speaking of today, we are living in a wonderous time, yet with very heavy challenges to the soul. Polarities and tensions run high as we are presented with multiple questions and issues. COVID-19. The vaccine. Elections. The American president. Israel’s prime minister. China. Finding work. Depression. Working on one’s marriage. Children. Family while pretty much every aspect of the modern world seems to try to break it up. Religion. Social media. And the list goes on.

In the midst of all these issues and more, it is imperative that we hold on to our relationships. And it is oh so easy to get distracted by the tensions and criticism. The government is too right-wing. It’s not right wing enough. It’s too religious, or not enough. It’s too aggressive in it’s vaccine campaign, or not enough. There is so much that we could criticize in our time, that it truly boggles the mind. With all these criticisms, it is so easy to disavow whatever loyalty we might have to each other or to our nation.

I’m reminded however of an anecdote by a particular rabbi, though I forget the source. He asks a question:

“During the time of the destructions of both temples, there were two men of influence who wanted the leaders of Jerusalem to negotiate with the enemy: the prophet Jeremiah (First temple), and the Jewish historian Josephus (Second temple). Yet, Jeremiah is looked upon as a loyal patriot, while Josephus is looked upon as a traitor. Why?

“Because Jeremiah remained within the walls of Jerusalem, while Josephus remained outside in the Roman camp.” In other words, even though Jeremiah raged against the political leadership for it’s bad decisions, in the end Jeremiah maintained his loyalty to the nation whether it did the right thing–proving his love and loyalty to the nation. Josephus on the other hand, no matter what good words and advice could have come from him, lost all legitimacy after deserting to the Romans.

This is the lesson that Reuven teaches us today. That we may not like the way the nation is conducting itself. We may not feel that it is enough of whatever ideologically we believe is necessary. And yet, no matter what, first and foremost, all Jews must care for and respect each other. This means that every time we look at a fellow Jew, whether he/she is religious or not, vaccinated or not, Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Ethiopian, or convert from who knows where, that we are to remember that we are looking at one of the great souls that stood at Sinai–because we were all there. To do otherwise is to be distracted.

This is not to say that discussions cannot be had–indeed there is a time and place for corrections and rebukes–but the aim in this is the inner intent of the person. What does one Jew see when he sees another Jew who is different from him? Does he see a soul from Sinai, or does he see a project that he wants to carve into his own image that is to be abandoned when not convinced?

Indeed, for myself personally the government and/or country has not done everything that I would hope from it. I’m a bit of a conspiracy theorist myself I suppose, and I’m anti-vax–and I feel very strongly in my position. Yet, my loyalty is to the nation of Israel. For more than 1,800 years we Jews have gone without a country, and only a fool would give up all hope for it to become the ideal, even if one sees major setbacks. One may only look in the Tanach and realize that even though we often had governments that did the most horrific acts, that the prophets of the Tanach always maintained their loyalty to the nation, even as they rebuked it. We should do and be no less.

As a convert to Judaism and immigrant to the state of Israel, I can say for myself that it has not been easy integrating. Generally speaking, converts don’t make a lot of money in their life. And yet, for me this is also a place where the example of the tribe of Reuven strikes hard. I can relate and look up to a tribe that lost it’s honor and prestige of it’s former life, and still maintains its loyalty to his brothers. And I believe that every Jew should make Aliyah and do the same–even though it is hard.

Once again the tribe of Reuben says to us, “If I have accepted my fate of a lowly stature before my brothers, then so should you.”

Indeed, Rabbi Avraham Kook stated that, “The Second Temple was destroyed because of baseless hate. The Third Temple will be built because of baseless love.” I believe this to be a baseless love of that of the tribe of Reuven–that which sacrifices material gain, prestige, honor, and comfort for the sake of his brothers.

May we follow the example of the tribe of Reuben, and show the world his loyalty to the nation of Israel.

May we stay the course in our brotherhood no matter what the forces like the Assyrian kings try to do to us.

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 Kiryat Arba/Hevron with his wife and daughter.