This was inspired by a comment of Rabbi Dov Fink, who was our scholar-in-residence last Shabbat.
This week we start the Book of Numbers, so we start with all the numbers: the census of בני ישראל:
I want to look at the way the text describes ראובן: he is בכר ישראל. But we know that he really isn’t. יהודה was the leader of the tribes:
And יוסף got the double portion of having two tribes:
In דברי הימים it says this explicitly. ראובן may have been the eldest, but he didn’t have the status of בכור. The Midrash (בראשית רבה צא:ט) calls him a בְּכוֹר שׁוֹטֶה.
But whenever the people are counted, he is called בכור ישראל.
It seems almost like an insult, to remind ראובן of what he was and what he had lost.
We will have to look at the initial incident that caused ראובן to lose his birthright. דברי הימים said חללו יצועי אביו, ”he defiled his father’s bed“.
And Yaakov, on his deathbed, made the connection explicit:
We will have to understand what וישכב את בלהה פילגש אביו means.
But even at that moment, ראובן is called בכור יעקב ראובן. As דברי הימים says, no one else is התיחש לבכרה.
ראובן remains the בכור לבכורה; he is called the בכור because he keeps that יִחוס, that relationship with his siblings. What does that mean?
ראובן is an important part of our “spiritual genetics”. As the בכור, he had an influence on the rest of בני ישראל.
What was that influence? There are multiple answers (related to his תשובה or to the דודאים) but I want to look at his sin. We’ve discussed before (פרשת מקץ תשע״ט) that חז״ל don’t take וישכב את בלהה פילגש אביו literally, in part because
בלהה was not a פילגש.
לשכב אם פלגש has a very specific meaning. It represents an assertion of royalty, of leadership.
lots of examples of this in תנ״ך; the most obvious is when אבשלום rebels against his father.
And, in a more subtle example, when נתן rebukes David:
Whatever ראובן's act was, it was an premature assertion of leadership. He was the בכור, and would be the leader of בני ישראל. But he was פחז, jumped the gun, and lost that position.
There is another aspect of בכורה that ראובן kept:
Hoshea was a descendant of ראובן, and was the premier נביא of תשובה:
He had פחיזה, recklessness, but פחיזה is not an unalloyed evil. We are approaching Shavuot, the holiday where we celebrate our פחיזה.
There is a dialectic here. We can’t always forge ahead without thinking, but overanalysis leads to paralysis.
And so we are left as the children of ראובן, פחז כמים, running to do good without thinking first.