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Written by Sender Rozesz. Sender Rozesz is a practicing attorney with a background in Jewish pluralistic education for adults. The views reflected in his columns represent his own personal views, and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations, institutes or associations with whom he may be affiliated. For more Double Mitzvahs by Sender Rozesz, check out A Woman’s Vow, Sexual Motive, Choose Your Own Spouse, The Post-Honeymoon Journey, A Wise and Understanding People, The Blessing of Fertility, Abominations, Coitus Interruptus, Sexual Struggles,The Unspeakable Language of Passion, Cut vs. Uncut, The Silence of Bitterness, Sex and the Holiest Day of the Year, Shifting Beds and Sex in the Sukkah,Sex…In the Beginning, A Sexual Reboot, She’s My Beautiful Sister,Kosher Incest?, How They Met, Male-Female Intercourse, The First Kiss, The Power to Transform, Onanism, Daughters-in-Law and Moshiach, Issues with the In-Laws?, and The Undoing of Captivity.
A few months ago, we discussed the interesting episode with Reuben and his single major faux pas: his relationship with Bilhah, one of his father’s wives – but which may be an odd euphemism for his mistreatment of Jacob’s bed. Please see our earlier discussion here.
In this week’s Torah portion, Jacob summons his sons to give them a final blessing before his passing. However, the first three brothers must have wondered whether they were being blessed our cursed, as Jacob’s words for Reuben, Shimon and Levi were harsh indeed. To Shimon and Levi, Jacob recalled the impulsivity and vengefulness that they exhibited in killing the inhabitants of Shechem after the rape of their sister Dinah, as well as their later role in the kidnapping and sale of Joseph. He cursed their anger, disassociating himself from their legacy forever.
For Reuben, Jacob begins by wistfully acknowledging that “you are my firstborn, my strength and the first of my might.” Then, however, he sadly offers the following: “You have the instability of water; therefore, you shall not have superiority, for you ascended upon your father’s couch; then you profaned my bed.” Genesis, 49:3-4.
As a quick refresher, the incident to which Jacob refers occurred in Parshat Vayishlach, as Jacob and his family were on their way back to the Land of Canaan, shortly after Rachel’s passing. There it states: “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 the sons of Jacob were twelve.” Genesis, 35:22.
This is a weighty accusation. If Reuben truly slept with Bilhah, that would mean not only that he slept with a married woman, but that he slept with his father‘s married woman (not to mention his aunt). Such an act might indeed elicit the type of unremitting condemnation to which both Reuben and his descendants were subjected.
Most commentaries, however, insist that Reuben did not – and would never – actually sleep with his father’s wife, and that Torah chose those words as a euphemism for what Reuben really did: he moved his father’s bed from Bilhah’s tent to Leah’s tent, defending his mother’s honor as Jacob’s primary wife, following Rachel’s death.
There are a number of compelling reasons, however, to conclude that Reuben did precisely what the Torah says he did: sleep with Bilhah
1. Torah says so; and, when Torah speaks euphemistically, it does so typically to soften the truth – not to embellish it.
2. Reuben’s act still bothered Jacob more than 50 years later, on his deathbed, as he summoned his sons to give them a last blessing – and he could still not bring himself to forgive or to bless Reuben. Would he have held on in quite the same way to the relatively minor infraction of moving Jacob’s bed?
3. What does it even mean to “move Jacob’s bed”? Did Jacob have an actual physical mattress or bed frame that he would move from tent to tent each night? Assuming that each of his four wives had their own tents, and that Jacob would spend each night in one of them, wouldn’t he have just slept in his wife’s bed? In fact, isn’t lying in close proximity sort of the purpose of the sleepover?
On the other hand, sleeping with his father’s wife is an act that would be so out of character for Reuben’s genteel and righteous nature, so beyond the realm of Reuben’s likely behavior, that it is difficult to fathom that Reuben actually did it. Additionally, why would Jacob describe an illicit sexual act as having been characterized by “the instability of water.” Wouldn’t it be more reflective of the “passionate abandon of fire?”
This brings us to a truly interesting passage in the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbos, 55b. The passage opens with an unequivocal statement of Reuben’s innocence of any sexual misdeed; indeed, it vehemently rejects any contrary point of view:
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,” teaching that they were all equal. Then how do I interpret “and he lay with Bilhah his father’s concubine?” This teaches that he transposed his father’s couch, and the Torah 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. 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,” 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…
This passage emphatically denies that Reuben committed any sexual crime with Bilhah. However, the language “this righteous man was save from that sin” does suggest that he may have been tempted to sleep with Bilhah.
How that would change the picture! Imagine that Reuben had a crush, or perhaps had even developed a romantic relationship with Bilhah. There were certain lines, however, that Reuben, young as he was, would not cross. He would not actually have sex with his father’s wife. Oh, but how he desired to! This, then, might add an extra layer of understanding to why Reuben may have moved Jacob’s bed from Bilhah’s tent. Perhaps the slight to his mother’s honor did bother him. But it may also have been too difficult for him to see Jacob sleeping with Bilhah – a woman that Reuben himself coveted, but one with whom he could not consummate his arduous feelings. So, he moved Jacob’s bed on the pretense that the bed belonged in Leah’s tent, when his true objective was merely to get it out of Bilhah’s. This would also explain why the Torah might impute blame to Reuben as though he had slept with Bilhah: because Reuben’s desire to sleep with her is what fueled his actions in moving Jacob’s bed. Reuben’s actions were this a physical manifestation of his sexual desire for Bilhah.