We looked at Reuven as a character in the Yosef story last week, and he comes up again in this week’s parasha:
What is Reuven thinking? What kind of guarantee is that, שני בני תמית? One idea is that it is a form of oath, swearing on the life of something profoundly important to you:
We see this earlier in the parasha:
But the language is wrong; he doesn’t say “חיי בני אם לא אביאנו”; his language is much more negative. The Ohr Hachaim says that the words quoted here are not literally what Reuven said, but his oath was so inappropriate that the text considers it like he said that:
But that’s hard to reconcile with the fact that he actually had four sons:
So we could look at his guarantee is a kind of two-for-one: if you lose one child, I will lose two:
Rav Schwab has a different approach:
However we understand Reuven, it is clear that Yaakov doesn’t even address his promise. Rashi cites בראשית רבה:
Rav Kamenetsky, אמת ליעקב on בראשית מב:לח, says there is a more subtle implication of the choice of wording in the midrash that Rashi quotes. שׁוֹטֶה doesn’t necessarily mean “fool”:
Now, Yosef is 30 years old at this point; נער doesn’t mean “youth”:
And שוטה in Rashi can’t mean “fool”; the butler is trying to convince Pharaoh that Yosef is a dream-interpreting genius. נער (and here, שוטה) means “subordinate”:
And the term that the midrash uses for Reuven, בְּכוֹר שׁוֹטֶה, has a technical meaning in the halacha:
A בְּכוֹר שׁוֹטֶה is a firstborn who does not have the legal status of firstborn. This is what happened to Reuven:
And Yaakov pretty much told Reuven this on his (Yaakov’s) deathbed:
We know what the Torah says about Reuven’s mistake:
And how חז״ל interpreted it:
But calling that פחז, ”rash“, seems like the wrong word. It implies that if he only had waited, it would have been all right:
What did Reuven do? We won’t answer that question, but will try to look at the question of what did Reuven mean?
Anita Diamant, in The Red Tent, describes this as the time when Reuven and Bilhah finally declared their love for each other. That’s clearly wrong; whatever actually happened, it was not an expression of love. We know that because the text describes her as בלהה פילגש אביו. The שפחות were not concubines; they were full-fledged wives:
Reuven treated בלהה as a פלגש:
That’s important, because שכב את פילגש has a very specific implication:
The פלגש המלך is permissible only to the new מלך. Taking his פלגש in his lifetime means claiming to be the new מלך.
And so the act of חללו יצועי אביו was “reckless, rash, impetuous”; it was claiming leadership of the twelve tribes before Yaakov was dead. But at the time Yaakov’s response was וישמע ישראל;
ויהיו בני יעקב שנים עשר…בכור יעקב ראובן.
It seems that Yaakov held his judgment in abeyance. It wasn’t until the incident in our parasha that Reuven is declared a בכור שוטה; technically the oldest but no longer in a position of leadership. This comment of את שני בני תמית was so poorly thought that Yaakov sees that Reuven will never be a real בכור. We never hear from him again.