Shifting Beds – Part II

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Double Mitzvah Jewrotica Parsha

The Talmudic passage continues, offering that whether Reuben actually slept with Bilhah is a matter of Tannaic dispute, based upon differing views as to the significance of the word “instability” – “PaHaZ,” which the sages see as an acronym:

This is dependent on Tannaim. “Unstable [PaHaZ] as water, thou shalt not excel”: R. Eliezer interpreted: “You were hasty [Paztah], you were guilty[Habtah], you were disgraced [Zaltah].”

R. Joshua interpreted: “You overstepped [Pasatah] the law, you sinned [Hatatha], you fornicated [Zanitha].”

R. Gamaliel interpreted: “You meditated [Pillaltah], you supplicated [Haltah], your prayer shone forth [Zarhah].” Said R. Gamaliel, “We still require the interpretation of] the Modiite. R. Eleazar the Modiite said, ‘Reverse the word and interpret it: You trembled [Zi’az’atha], you recoiled [Halitha], your sin fled [Parhah] from you.'” Raba — others state, R. Jeremiah b. Abba interpreted: “You remembered [Zakarta] the penalty of the crime, you were [grievously] sick [Halitha], you held yourself aloof [Pirashta] from sinning.”

So two Tannaim – R’ Eliezer and R. Joshua – both believe that Reuben did indeed sleep with Bilhah. They must believe that there is some other reason that the Torah concluded the episode with a statement that “the sons of Jacob were twelve” – other than to exculpate Reuben.

R’ Gamliel, on the other hand, appears to believe that Reuben did not ultimately sin – but that it was a close call, and it took much internal battling and supplication for Reuben to be spared the sin of sleeping with his father’s wife. The temptation was clearly there. And what was the “grievous sickness” that R’ Jeremiah states Reuben suffered? Was Reuben sick to his stomach by what he was tempted to do? Or was it something more akin to lovesickness? Remember, those who claim Reuben to be innocent still believe that Reuben – after he won the battle with his impulses – then went and moved Jacob’s bed from Bilhah’s tent. Was that a symptom of the “sickness” that had taken hold of him?

This might also explain why Jacob characterized Reuben’s act as the “instability of water.” For Reuben’s victory over his impulses was not a decisive one. His feelings for Bilhah, and the urges that he felt with respect to her, seeped into his consciousness and left him in inner turmoil. He had won the battle – he would not touch her – but he could still not abide Jacob’s bed in her tent. He could not let go. Those residual feelings compelled him to act out, by displacing Jacob’s bed and his prerogative as Bilhah’s husband. It was like the water of the ocean, receding from the shore – only to return shortly thereafter in a new wave, unable to free itself from the shore’s inexorable pull.

Was this indecisiveness also a factor when Joseph was sold? Initially, all of the brothers plotted to kill Joseph. Then Reuben spoke up, recommending that the brother’s not kill Joseph with their bare hands; however, he did suggest throwing Joseph into a pit – a pit which tradition tells us was inhabited by snakes and scorpions. The Torah tells us, however, that Reuben intended on coming back at some point when the others weren’t around, to pull Joseph out and return him to his father. Do these conflicting and tumultuous feelings also smack of instability and indecision?

Decades later, Jacob was clearly still bothered by Reuben’s actions, which appeared to define Reuben in Jacob’s eyes. He seems to have seen through Reuben’s altruistic excuse for moving his bed, and likely appreciates the inner turmoil that drove Reuben to that act. Sadly, Jacob informs Reuben that his weakness of character resulted in Jacob’s bed being defiled in some sense; a consequences to which Reuben, absorbed in his inner battle, appears to have been blinded.

The easy lesson from this week’s Torah portion is that sleeping with a step-parent is a bad idea.

The harder (and more useful) lesson, however – as we conclude Genesis, and all of the stories of sexual excess that we have explored throughout – is the lesson of stability and decisiveness.

Keep the band-aid on, or rip it off; but don’t you with it, roll it, or pick at it. We all have powerful urges and impulses – more often than not in the sexual arena. Sometimes we give in to them; sometimes we muster the strength to resist them. But when we win, let’s win. March forward and don’t look back. Let the past, with all of its struggles, go, and don’t keep looking back to consider what opportunities we may have lost, or what might have been. We don’t need the torture of getting tangled up in old battles when the road forward beckons.

Lot’s wife couldn’t keep from looking back, and she turned into a pillar of salt. But when the Israelites at the Red Sea put the Egyptians determinedly behind them and marched forward, the sea split for them, opening a new path to an untangled future.

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