Reuven: Cover-Up or Peshat?

  • Rav Alex Israel
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion



Reuven: Cover-Up or Peshat?

By Rav Alex Israel


This week we shall turn our attention to a few midrashim that relate to the Parasha.  The way I seek to study Midrash departs from the populist The Midrash Says method of understanding the words of our sages.  I do not perceive the midrashim simply as fables, legends or stories that give us extra historical or biographical information in connection to our Bible narratives.  Midrash, to my mind, is a sophisticated textual technique, a method of serious commentary that picks up on some of the deepest currents within the text, and allows us to focus upon the true depth of the verses at hand.


In this path, I follow the approach proposed by the Rambam in his Commentary to the Mishna.  In speaking about the more difficult midrashic statements of Chazal, he comments:


Their words have both an outer and an inner meaning, and in all that they say which seems to be impossible, their comments are in the form of riddle and parable...  The theme of the speech of learned men consists entirely of matters of the highest import, but these matters are put in the form of puzzles and similes.  How can we criticize that their literary productions take the form of proverbs or similes which are of a lowly and popular kind, seeing that the wisest of men did the same by holy inspiration, i.e. Shelomo in the Book of Proverbs, the Song of Songs and part of Kohelet.


When a midrash puzzles us, we would do well to remember this statement of the Rambam, that our Sages sometimes express themselves in a manner that needs decoding.  We must interpret Midrash and not always read it simply at face value: it is our task and our duty to seek the "inner meaning" behind the midrashic words of Chazal.  In my experience we will reveal a world of subtlety and sophistication, expressions of poetry and allusion, readings of innuendo and irony.  The world of Midrash is complex and rich; those who see only the surface miss its beauty and wisdom.


This week we shall present a famous midrash about Reuven, and a "solution" to the midrash in an attempt to reveal the peshat behind the derash.




The pasuk (Bereishit 35:22) tells us: "When Yisrael dwelled in that land, Reuven went and slept with Bilha, his father's concubine, and Yisrael heard."


Rashi cites the midrash brought on Shabbat 55b:


Because he switched around his [father's] bed, the Torah treats him as if he slept with her.  Now, why did he switch and desecrate his bed?  When Rachel died, Yaakov took his bed, which was placed most frequently in Rachel's tent rather than the other tents, and Yaakov put his bed in Bilha's tent.  Reuven came to protest his mother's insult.  He said: "If my mother's sister was a rival-wife to my mother, should the maidservant of my mother's sister now become a rival-wife to my mother?"  Therefore, he made the switch.


According to the Torah text, Reuven slept with Bilha.  According to the midrash, he simply adjusted his father's sleeping arrangements, obviously an unwelcome intrusion into his father's personal life, but not quite the same degree of sin!  What is the truth here?  Is the midrash not making an attempt to whitewash Reuven's severe crime?  Why does the midrash feel a need to distort the facts of the matter?


Perhaps to emphasize our question, the "headline" for this midrash as it appears on Shabbat 55b is: "If you think that Reuven sinned, you are mistaken."  How are we to understand this rabbinic statement?  Clearly Reuven sinned—it is explicitly written in the Torah text!  How can Chazal utterly disregard the peshat?




If Reuven actually did sleep with Bilha, then what was his motive?  Ostensibly, we may be talking about a love affair between Reuven and Bilha.  However, I believe that from a perspective which views all of Tanakh, a second possibility comes into focus.


There are many instances in Tanakh in which a son attempts to engage in sexual relations with his father's concubine.  The two cases that stand out are the stories of Avshalom and of Adoniya, two rebellious sons of King David.  In both of these narratives, there is a political rather than a sexual motive.  In both episodes, the son's act with his father's concubine represents his taking his father's status as king.  By taking the king's wives and engaging in sexual relations with them, the son is assuming his father's position, with all of its political significance. 


Avshalom stages a rebellion against his father, King David, and temporarily deposes him from the throne, exiling him from Jerusalem.  Avshalom, interested in making a firm statement about his new status as king, asks his advisor Achitofel how he might publicize his new role as monarch.  Achitofel replies (II Shemuel 16:21):


"Lie with your father's concubines, whom he left to mind the palace; and when all Israel hears that you have dared the wrath of your father, all who support you will be encouraged."


Similarly, in the beginning of I Melakhim, Adoniya stages a coup against David and his promised heir, Shelomo.  David foils this attempt, but after his death, in a rather devious move, Adoniya asks Bat Sheva, the Queen Mother, to approach her son Shelomo and petition him for the right to marry King David's concubine Avishag.  Shelomo responds in horror (I Melakhim 2:22-24):


"'Why request Avishag the Shunammit for Adoniya? Request the kingship for him!"

Thereupon King Solomon swore by Lord: "So may God do to me and even more, if broaching this matter does not cost Adoniya his life … Adoniya shall be put to death this very day!"


These proofs are not the only ones.  One might also talk about Avner (II Shemuel 3:7) and even the case of David's wife Mikhal (ibid., vv. 13-16.) So where does this lead us?  What might we conclude from these episodes?  We can summarize it in a single sentence: in Tanakh, a son sleeping with his father's concubine is not an expression of romance; it is a quintessential act of politics, in which the son is usurping his father's position.




On the basis of that which we have gleaned from other references in Tanakh, we do understand that what takes place between Reuven and Bilha is not some sordid love affair.  The issue at stake is the family leadership and who will succeed Yaakov as patriarch of the family.


Rachel has died.  Everyone is fully aware of Rachel's special status in Yaakov's eyes: they all know that she was his first love, his true love.  However, now Rachel is dead.


This is not the only important occurrence that takes place at this time; concurrent with Rachel's death is the birth of Yaakov's twelfth and final son.  We do not quite know whether Yaakov and his wives know that they are aiming for a family of twelve sons (though this is Rashi's assumption, and we do indeed find twelve princes of Yishmael in 17:20 and 25:13-16, as well as twelve sons of Nachor in 22:21-24), but we do know in retrospect that the clan is now complete. 


Naturally, with the family unit whole, the question that must be raised pertains to the leadership of the next generation.  While Rachel is alive, Leah's children feel suppressed and marginalized; with Rachel's death, it is time for Leah's clan to claim their rightful place in the family.  Reuven, firstborn of Leah, expresses in the most explicit way, by sleeping with Bilha, that he intends to succeed his father as the family leader.  His goal is to proclaim that the children of Leah are the natural continuation of Yaakov, not Rachel's children.




Our midrash discusses the question of switching the beds.  Where does the text allude to this?  In 49:4 and I Divrei Ha-yamim 5:2, Reuven's crime is described as a desecration of his father's yetzu'im.  How is that phrase correctly translated?  Rashi brings references that connect this phrase with the notion of a bed or bedding.  If Reuven had committed a sexual crime, the Torah has very explicit terminology to describe such an act; it is not shy about these things.  Instead, Reuven is described as "defiling his father's bed."  Why the stress upon the bed itself if the sin is so much more grievous?




Even without this particular point, let us look back at the midrash.  Reuven moves Yaakov's bed to Leah's tent, removing it from Bilha's tent.  Why does he do thus?  What is his motivation in interfering with Yaakov's sleeping arrangements?  The midrash talks about the affront to his mother, but it is not solely his mother who suffers insult.  After all, Rachel and Leah are the original wives, united by their sisterly bond; the other two "wives" are of a lower stature.  If Yaakov prefers Bilha, Rachel's maid, to Leah, then Yaakov is stating absolutely and unequivocally that he allies himself exclusively with Rachel's side of the family.  This has an impact not only upon Leah, but upon her sons as well.  Are they going to ignore their being sidelined?  Is Reuven, the firstborn, going to forego his leading role in the family and simply allow Rachel's children to lead the family?


If Reuven moves Jacob's bed into Leah's tent, then he is sending Yaakov a message that he wishes to be taken seriously, that Yaakov must take his mother seriously: Leah's children demand to be given their rightful share.  Reuven, as firstborn, is demanding his position as the family leader.  Thus, moving the bed away from Rachel towards Leah is a political act.


At this point, do the peshat and derash stand so far apart?  Are they so opposed to one another?  I think not.


Have a shabbat shalom!