SALT - Sunday 11 Kislev 5777 - December 11, 2016

  • Rav David Silverberg

            Yesterday, we noted the Gemara’s comments in Masekhet Shabbat (55b) explaining the Torah’s brief account of Reuven’s sin with his stepmother, Bilha (35:22).  The Torah writes that Reuven slept with Bilha, but the Gemara explains that in truth, he committed a less severe offense, moving his father’s bed out of Bilha’s tent and placing it in Leah’s tent.  This intervention in his father’s private affairs was considered a grievous sin, and the Torah underscores its severity, the Gemara explains, by writing that Reuven actually slept with Bilha.  According to a berayta cited by the Gemara, Reuven moved Yaakov’s bed in order to protect his mother’s honor.  Yaakov’s decision to make his primary residence in the tent of a maidservant was seen by Reuven as an affront to Leah, and thus Reuven moved the bed into Leah’s tent to uphold her honor which had been compromised.

            The Ramban, however, in his commentary to Parashat Vayishlach, suggests a startling alternative to the explanation presented by the Gemara.  He writes that after Rachel’s death, Reuven sought to ensure that Yaakov would not have any more children with whom he would have to divide Yaakov’s estate, and this is why he wanted Yaakov’s bed specifically in Leah’s tent.  The Ramban asserts that Leah was already too old to bear children, whereas Bilha was still fertile.  Therefore, Reuven thought he could prevent the birth of more brothers by moving Yaakov’s bed into Bilha’s tent.  The Ramban explains that this was done specifically by Reuven, because Reuven had the most to lose by the birth of more brothers.  As the firstborn, he was entitled to a double share of Yaakov’s estate, and thus each additional brother resulted in a double loss of his share.  This concern drove Reuven to the drastic measure of interfering with his father’s most private affairs, and moving his bed into Leah’s tent.  The Ramban explains on this basis why Yaakov responded to Reuven’s action by transferring the birthright from Reuven to Yosef (Divrei Hayamim I 5:1).  As Reuven committed his act to preserve his large share as the firstborn, his punishment was forfeiting the rights of the firstborn.

            The Ramban’s account of the events, and of Reuven’s concerns about his share of the inheritance, should perhaps alert us to the dangers of discontentment and anxiety about long-term financial security.  Ironically, Reuven was in line to receive twice as much of Yaakov’s wealth than any of his brothers, yet it was specifically he who was concerned about the effects of another brother on the size of his share.  His anxiety over losing part of his exceptionally large share made it difficult for him to happily accept his privileged status as firstborn, and enjoy the double portion he would be receiving.  We must try to feel content with the blessings we have rather than worry about what we might not have.  Reuven’s mistake, as understood by the Ramban, should remind us of the ill effects of financial anxiety, how even those who are privileged can resort to drastic, imprudent tactics to preserve their wealth.  The lesson we learn is to find joy and contentment in what we have rather than fretting over what we do not have.