Friday, November 19, 2010

Shame, Pride & Striving: the case of Reuben Jacob-son

There seems to be a little of Prince Charles in the Torah's Reuben, in that he is destined for greatness1 but never seems to get there. 
He is conceived, not in an act of love between his father and mother, but in a case of mistaken identity2 in which his father loved his aunt Rachel and thought his mother was her sister.
Just after he is born his mother named him Reuben, which literally means “look (in the plural) a son!” Because she said, “because God saw my pain, as now my husband will love me3. There seems to be something tragic in the only comment a mother makes about her baby son is about his potential to help her with her loveless marriage. Her desperation for Jacob's love and deep sadness about this is expressed in the names of her 2nd, 3rd and 6th children born in Reuben's formative years, Shimon: “because God heard that I was hated”, Levi “now, this time my husband will be attached to me”, Zebulun, “this time my husband will dwell with me”.
His name is also interpreted as his mother declaring 'look at the difference between my son and the son of my father in law (eg. Esau, the son of Isaac)'. Esau sold his birthright (status of being first-born) to Jacob but then hated him, whereas my son had his birthright taken from his against his will and given to Joseph yet he was not jealous of him and on the contrary he sought to save him from his brothers4. While Leah takes pride in her sons moral character, it is stated in relation to his being her son as he compares with that of her father in law.
Reuben is next encountered bringing some type of plant called “Dudaiim5 (mandrakes or Jasmin) for his mother. One reason given for this offering was that Reuben saw that his mother was upset that she stopped giving birth (after her fourth child) so he brought his mother this plant which was believed to be either a fertility drug or an aphrodisiac6. The Dudaim, are requested by his aunt Rachel and leads to an argument between his mother and her sister. “is it a small matter, your taking my husband, now you will take these Dudaiim of my son7?” A deal is struck in which Jacob will sleep with Leah that night instead of Rachel. At what point does Reuben leave the scene?
Reuben's next big moment as the oldest of his brothers, one would assume, would come in the brother's response to the rape and abduction of their sister Dina. Jacob, takes a back seat to his sons who violently deal with their outrage about it. Reuben is not mentioned in this story, instead it is Shimon & Levi who lead and drive the terrible drama.
Instead, Reuben appears in a cryptic incident following Rachel's death and Jacob moving his bed from its permanent place in Rachel's tent to his concubine Bilha's tent. “When his father lived in that land, Reuben went and slept with Bilhah, his father's concubine”. There are arguments about whether this is to be taken literally8,  one view being that he merely interfered in the sexual life of Bilhah, by removing his fathers bed from her tent and putting it in his mother's tent to claim his mothers embarrassment as being a secondary wife. Other views are the Reuben merely put egg white on her Bilha's bed to make it appear that something more happened, but Jacob saw through the lie or alternatively that he slept in Bilha's bed9.
Reuben was filled with great remorse about whatever happened with Bilhah and fasted many fasts. This well intentioned fasting, leads to one of the saddest cries of Reuben's life. Biblical, Reuben, intends to save Joseph but does not challenge the 'group-think' of his brothers that Joseph must die. He works within the consensus, suggests a compromise, hoping to fix it later. He then goes off, occupied with his sackcloth and his fasting for the his sin (relating to Bilha/his father). Only to return to see that Joseph is gone. “and I, where will I come?” He will never feel at home again, haunted by his timid choice. (For anyone who read The Kite Runner, think of the deep shame and guilt of the main character).
In later years Reuben offers his two children should be killed if he fails to protect, Benjamin who is Rachel and Jacobs only remaining son. His offer is rebuffed by Jacob. It is interpreted as if Jacob is saying “an idiot of an oldest son he is, he says to kill his sons, are his children not my children?!
In his last 'speaking part' in his life's tragic drama, Reuben castigates his brothers for selling Joseph “did I not say to you, do not sin with the boy and you did not listen, and now his blood is being demanded (we are being held accountable for it)”. He might have wanted to say that, it seems clear that he certainly meant to say that, but he did not quite tell them that. Compare his record of what he told them with his actual words at the time, “let us not kill his soul, do not spill his blood, throw him into this pit in the desert (filled with snakes and scorpions10) but do not send send your hand against him”.
On his fathers death bed, he is criticized for his impulsiveness and the incident with Bilha.
For me, there are three elements. There is something here about the damaging effect of excess shame and guilt. Reuben would have been more use to Joseph, if he beat himself up a bit less, believed that God has forgiven him out of His abundant forgiveness and lived more joyously11. Leah's almost tragic focus on her terrible situation makes me think more about Jacob's and men's responsibility than hers. I can barely imagine what it would be like for a woman in a polygamous relationship to feel unloved by her husband. There is clearly a message here about men communicating and nurturing a loving relationship, as our tradition warns men about the significance of the tears of a woman. How this would apply to women, I will leave for female scholars to articulate.
Finally the story is about Reuben's inherent decency in spite of his failures and flaws. Not all of us need to be the hero in some real life adaptation of a Hollywood movie, 'riding in to the town on horseback having shot up all the baddies'. Not every life, is about a man overcoming his inhibitions to find greatness and glory. What matters more is recognizing our own flaws and striving to correct them, but also manage and contain them and the sadness and shame they evoke within us and just be a decent human being. In this Reuben succeeds.

1Midrash Beresheet Rabba chap 99.
2Based on Rashi on Beresheet 49:2, Beresheet Rabbah, Zohar, Bereshith, Section 1, Page 176a, cited by Rabbi Ari Kahn, .
3Beresheet, 29:32
4Talmud, Berachot 7b.
5 for more about this plant and opportunity to buy dried Dudaim seeds.
7Beresheet 30:15
8Talmud, Shabbat 55a.
9Tosaphot, Hadar Zekainim, quoting Midrash, and a manuscript of Rokeach both cited in Torah Shelaima, Beresheet p1360-1361.
11Tanya Chapter 1 & 26.


  1. Wow. I didn't realize the details of Leah's pain until you wrote about the meanings of the names she gave to her children. Jacob used Leah from the beginning. On some level, she must have known this, but like many women, she had the fantasy that she could change things and change him. I felt her pain when I read that after Rachel's death, Jacob moved his bed to the tent of a concubine rather than Leah's. What a slap and humiliation that was for her! Another lesson of plural-marriage-gone-wrong illustrated by your piece is the affect it can have on the children, such as Reuben.

  2. Also, can you give another source for footnote 2 which can be read online? Thanks.

  3. Thanks Safiyyah for your comment.I agree that Leah's pain almost jumps off the page with the names. In traditional commentary the relationship with Jacob changes with the arrival of the children. Still, it must have been very difficult. The impact on the children is my own speculation, rather than having a clear source.
    Unfortunately, I don't know where there is more info on-line relating to footnote 2. A shame it is no longer active.