A few years ago, the ribbon attached to a helium balloon got wrapped around the ceiling fan in my kitchen. The fan stopped working, and because I have a son who is an electrician, I decided that through some form of reverse osmosis, I would be able to fix it. In summary, during the process of my trying to make things better, literal flames and smoke came out of the fan’s motor, which is what we non-electricians call, “bad.” I tried to make it better, but I accidentally made it worse. And I thought, I bet the Germans have a word for that.
English has a lot of great if useless words. The best example of that might be “defenestrate”, which I kid you not, means, “to throw someone out a window.” I think the word “penultimate” is also in this category because it sounds oh so super fancy, but just means “next to last.” It’s a word that’s trying to protect someone’s feelings. (You’re not “almost last!” You’re penultimate!) And while we do have words we don’t need, sometimes we don’t have words that we should. Like for example, a word that means, “tried to make it better, accidentally made it worse.” But my hunch was that the people that gave us, schadenfreude (the joy you feel at someone else’s pain) and doppelganger (biologically unrelated look alike) should have something for this. So I Googled, “German words that means tried to make it better accidentally made it worse,” and I was rewarded with, “verschlimmbesserung.”
I use that word a lot. Too much. Like, maybe-I-should-stop-trying-to-make-it-better-already-because-we-know-how-that’s-going-to-go much. My daughter used it at work once, not realizing in that moment that she grew up with a weirdo for a dad, and then found she had to explain about her dad and the ceiling fan and Google. I was thinking about that word because of work this week, and for reasons I can’t disclose here, there was an honest and sincere attempt to make something better, and it’s become temporarily all mucked up. But just temporarily.
And since verschlimmbesserung was developing as the theme of my week, I decided to take a look at the parsha with that in mind and see what I saw. I am NOT going to comment on the hostage exchange and whether that is an example of verschlimmbesserung, because it’s impossible to know, because people much smarter and better informed than I are working on this, and because even if it’s not “right”, I can’t imagine the pain of families and the stress of the need to do something to help. That said, there are a whole bunch of examples worth noting in the parsha.
Some of our sages say that Yaakov sending messengers to Eisav was a mistake. Though well intended, it put his whole family in jeopardy. Yaakov goes back for his last few jugs and becomes the subject of an attack. The angel that attacks Yaakov means him harm but gives him a blessing. Yaakov hides Dina from Eisav, but the sages say the consequences of that are profound and unexpected. Shimon and Levi think their attack on Shechem is justified but end up inspiring the ire of their father, Yaakov. All of these are people who are trying to make things better but end up in situations that are worse. Verschlimmbesserung at its finest.
My favorite example though is the story of Reuvain and Bilha. “While Israel stayed in that land, Reuben went and lay with Bilhah, his father’s concubine; and Israel found out. Now the sons of Jacob were twelve in number. The sons of Leah: Reuben—Jacob’s first-born—Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun.” Breishit 35:22-23.
At first glance, this vignette is impossible to understand. Did Reuvain really “lay with” his father’s wife? And if he did, our expectation is that the next words would be about him being shunned, kicked out of the family like the first-borns Eisav and Yishmael before him. At least. But impossibly, the text seems to confirm his honored place as first born. Incredible.
Rashi quotes the sages who say that in fact, Reuvain did not commit adultery with his step-mother. Rather, what happened is that after the death of Yaakov’s beloved Rachel, he moved Yaakov’s bed, that is his formal place of residence, into the “tent of Bilha” and not the “tent of Leah.” Reuvain moved Yaakov’s bed to Leah’s tent. That was the indiscretion. A moving of furniture, not an affair.
As much as the sages’ commentary answers, it also opens up a whole slew of new questions, not the least of which is, why are the sages trying to cover up a sin the text tells us explicitly he committed. It sounds like they’re trying to whitewash something the Torah says was an egregious violation. Put another way, the Torah says it was a horrific, death penalty level sin, and the rabbis seem to be saying, “Meh. Just a case of verschlimmbesserung.”
Let me try and explain. The Torah is not a history book. Its purpose is not to record incidents for posterity so that we can fill our curiosity about our ancestors. The Torah is a guidebook, given to us by the Creator so that we can lead meaningful and fulfilled lives. The Torah need not record something based on the outer manifestations of a person, if the inner workings of his soul and his psyche are where the real story is taking place. Just like the Torah need not record incidents in chronological order if by arranging them by thematic connections helps it make a point. That’s the case here.
The Torah says that Reuvain slept with Bilha. But then the Torah also says that Reuvain continued to be an integral part of the family. His children are one of the tribes, despite the fact that other firstborns (think Yishmael and Eisav) were kicked out of the family. Later on in the Torah’s narrative, he’s actually the only guy the Torah says was trying to save Yosef! After that he’ll be in the thick of things trying to rescue Shimon from the Egyptian jail. He’ll be one of the sons of Yaakov that actually have dialogue in the Torah when he tries to connect the troubles the brothers are having in Egypt with the sale of Yosef. When Yaakov wants to include Yosef’s sons as tribal leaders, he says that Menashe and Efraim will, “Be to me as Reuvain and Shimon.” His family suffers with everyone else in slavery and enjoys the jubilation of the exodus. He is in all accounts an integral part of the Jewish people. It’s hard to believe that the family would have agreed to keep Reuvain and his children as members of their holy mission if he had committed such a gross and obvious sin. This is the evidence in the text that Reuvain’s failing must be a moral one, not a legal one.
Besides all that, we have a tradition that this is what the text means. And you know how seriously we take traditions like this. It’s frankly more meaningful than all the evidence from the text I can offer. We know that’s what happened because we have a tradition that this is what happened from the people who were there when it happened.
Our sages teach that Reuvain saw Yaakov move his bed, a symbol for his main place of residence, from Rachel’s tent after her death, to Bilha’s tent. Maybe Yaakov felt that Bilha was the one that reminded him most of Rachel so he sought comfort there. Maybe Bilha was raising the infant Binyamin, the last piece of Rachel. Maybe Bilha was closer to him in age so he saw her as more of a peer. Maybe, all these years later, he still never quite got over how Leah came to be his wife. Regardless of the reason, Yaakov chose to “move in” with Bilha.
The slight to his mother’s honor was too much for Reuvain to bear. It’s not enough that Rachel “took back” her word and also married Yaakov, thus pushing Leah to the sideline. It’s not enough that Yaakov fawned over Yosef and Binyamin. But now he chose to move in with a woman that started out as a maidservant? How insulting! Why can’t his mother just be loved? How can he show his father that he should really just love his mom. Why can’t his father just be with her?
As much as it might have come from a sincere and loving place, it was a gross violation of modesty for Reuvain to have a voice in his father’s intimate life. Obviously, this is not a part of life that children discuss with their parents, and it is not a topic that Reuvain should have offered his opinion on.
So the Torah describes Reuvain’s act through the eyes of morality; from the perspective of who he was, the perspective of his potential, and from the perspective of the essence of the sin. Reuvain had the potential to be the father of everything – the father of the kings, the father of the kohanim, to have a double portion of the land. He had the potential of every kohein gadol and Moshiach in him. It all could have been from him. But out of love, out of care for his mom no doubt, he violated the most sacred aspect of marriage. He violated the privacy of his parents and he intruded on the most sacred aspect of a couple’s relationship. In a moral sense, it was a type of adultery with his father’s wife. That’s how the Torah records it. Not by the outer trappings of action but by the reality of thought and potential. And we would expect no less than the truth at its most real, most essential level from the Torah.
One thing we wondered about is, “Why is Reuvain considered a good guy if he did something so bad?” Well, the fact that he is, and always was, considered one of the family is evidence that what he did couldn’t have been that bad. We also wondered, “Why are the rabbis trying to cover up something the Torah tells us about?” I don’t think that’s true at all. The Sages are trying to help you uncover the essential reality of what the Torah means.
I think it’s inevitable in life that we all end up in verschlimmbesserung moments. It seems an inescapable part of the human condition. My Shabbos wish for you is that even if you made it worse, it’s still fixable. I just bought a new fan and let my son the electrician install it.