Friday, December 17, 2010

Reuven and Bilhah

Summary: In Midrash Rabba, Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi takes a peshat-approach to the incident.

Post: In parashat Vayishlach, we read of the incident with Reuven and Bilhah:

22. And it came to pass when Israel sojourned in that land, that Reuben went and lay with Bilhah, his father's concubine, and Israel heard [of it], and so, the sons of Jacob were twelve.כב. וַיְהִי בִּשְׁכֹּן יִשְׂרָאֵל בָּאָרֶץ הַהִוא וַיֵּלֶךְ רְאוּבֵן וַיִּשְׁכַּב אֶת בִּלְהָה פִּילֶגֶשׁ אָבִיו וַיִּשְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל פ וַיִּהְיוּ בְנֵי יַעֲקֹב שְׁנֵים עָשָׂר:

We are most familiar with the traditional view, presented by Rashi, that Reuven did not have sexual relations with his father's concubine:
וישכב - מתוך שבלבל משכבו מעלה עליו הכתוב כאלו שכבה.
ולמה בלבל וחלל יצועיו? שכשמתה רחל נטל יעקב מטתו שהיתה נתונה תדיר באהל רחל ולא בשאר אהלים ונתנה באהל בלהה, בא ראובן ותבע עלבון אמו, אמר אם אחות אמי הייתה צרה לאמי, שפחת אחות אמי תהא צרה לאמי, לכן בלבל:

That is means that he mixed up Yaakov's bed, by arranging that Yaakov would sleep with Leah rather than Bilhah. And there are ways of reading this into the pasuk and into the word וַיִּשְׁכַּב. And further, that the end of the pasuk testifies that Reuven did not sin:
ויהיו בני יעקב שנים עשר - מתחיל לענין ראשון משנולד בנימין נשלמה המטה, ומעתה ראויים להימנות, ומנאן.
ורבותינו דרשו: ללמדנו
בא שכולן שוין, וכולן צדיקים, שלא חטא ראובן:

We can see this in Shabbat 55b (as well as in Midrash Rabba on Vaychi), that whoever says that Reuven sinned is only making a mistake. Thus:
R. Samuel b. Nahman said in R. Jonathan's name: Whoever maintains that Reuben sinned is merely making an error, for it is said, Now the sons of Jacob were twelve,9  teaching that they were all equal.10  Then how do I interpret, and he lay with Bilhah his father's concubine?11  This teaches that he transposed his father's couch,12  and the Writ imputes [blame] to him as though he had lain with her. It was taught, R. Simeon b. Eleazar said: That righteous man was saved from that sin and that deed did not come to his hand.13  Is it possible that his seed was destined to stand on Mount Ebal and proclaim, Cursed be he that lieth with his father's wife,14  yet this sin should come to his hand? But how do I interpret, and he lay with Bilhah his father's concubine'? He resented his mother's humiliation. Said he, If my mother's sister was a rival to my mother, shall the bondmaid of my mother's sister be a rival to my mother? [Thereupon] he arose and transposed her couch. Others say, He transposed two couches, one of the Shechinahand the other of his father.15  Thus it is written, Then thou defiledst, my couch on which [the Shechinah] went up.16
Yet, this is a matter of Tannaitic dispute, as the gemara there continues. Thus,
This is dependent on Tannaim. Unstable [Pahaz] as water, thou shalt not excel:17  R. Eliezer interpreted: Thou wast hasty [Paztah], thou wast guilty [Habtah] thou didst disgrace [Zaltah]. R. Joshua interpreted: Thou didst overstep [Pasatah] the law, thou didst sin [Hatatha], thou didst fornicate [Zanitha]. R. Gamaliel interpreted: Thou didst meditate [Pillaltah],18  thou didst supplicate [Haltah], thy prayer shone forth [Zarhah]. Said R. Gamaliel, We still need [the interpretation of] the Modiite. R. Eleazar the Modiite19  said, Reverse the word and interpret it: Thou didst tremble [Zi'az'atha], thou didst recoil [Halitha], thy sin fled [Parhah] from thee.20  Raba — others state, R. Jeremiah b. Abba interpreted: Thou didst remember [Zakarta] the penalty of the crime, thou wast [grievously] sick [Halitha],21  thou heldest aloof [Pirashta] from sinning.
So, according to Rabbi Yehoshua (and probably Rabbi Eliezer), Reuven actually slept with Bilhah. In Midrash Rabba, we also see that Rabbi, that is, Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, maintains this as well.

The pesukim local to parashat Vaychi are:

ג  רְאוּבֵן בְּכֹרִי אַתָּה, כֹּחִי וְרֵאשִׁית אוֹנִי--יֶתֶר שְׂאֵת, וְיֶתֶר עָז.3 Reuben, thou art my first-born, my might, and the first-fruits of my strength; the excellency of dignity, and the excellency of power.
ד  פַּחַז כַּמַּיִם אַל-תּוֹתַר, כִּי עָלִיתָ מִשְׁכְּבֵי אָבִיךָ; אָז חִלַּלְתָּ, יְצוּעִי עָלָה.  {פ}4 Unstable as water, have not thou the excellency; because thou wentest up to thy father's bed; then defiledst thou it--he went up to my couch. {P}

Midrash Rabba states:
ראובן בכורי אתה רבי היה אומר:בו דבר לשבח ודבר לגנאי. 
ראובן בכורי אתה,
את בכור.
ואני בכור.

אני בן פ"ד שנה לא ראיתי טפת קרי.
ואת וילך וישכב את בלהה.

"Reuven, you are my firstborn -- you are a bechor and I am a bechor. I was 84 years old and I never saw an accidental seminal emission. And you, 'and he went and slept with Bilhah'."

This fairly clearly regards Reuven's offense as an explicit sexual sin. On the place, Etz Yosef explains that there is in fact a dispute as to how to understand this pasuk, and that this midrash (by Rabbi) is based on the straightforward peshat.

So what made the other explanation the traditional peshat, and the "lucky midrash"? Perhaps that Rashi repeats it. Perhaps that it contains the statement "Whoever maintains that Reuben sinned is merely making an error", such that we can reject the opposition, as well as think them non-frum. Add perhaps a general desire to see good Biblical characters as good, and a sense of spiritual yeridas hadoros.


Anonymous said...

I would suggest that the conflicing medrashim can be explained , that Reuvain did teshuva ( sifri) and we know that teshuva Meahava , transforms the sin to a z'chus , ... so if one does teshuva his record gets cleaned, and the action can be transformed... that way if you say Reuven sind you are wrong , because he did teshuva

joshwaxman said...

a nice approach!

ultimately, though, i disagree. first, the gemara itself says that this position of R' Shmuel bar Nachman citing Rabbi Yochanan is a matter of Tannaitic dispute. second, you are correct (and indeed may be spot on!) that one might say this given Rabbi Yochanan's statement in isolation. but the gemara props it up by explaining a *different* sin, of transposing his father's couch. this prop would be unnecessary if everyone agrees that were this initial sin.

kol tuv,

Anonymous said...

That is my point ... transposing his fathers couch
is not a sin ...and that is what the Chet was changed too


Blog Widget by LinkWithin