Vayiggash: Reuben the Jerk

(This blog was first posted on December 20, 2009.)

These are the names of the sons of Israel, the one coming to Egypt, Jacob and his children: Jacob’s bechor, Reuben.  (Genesi/Bereishit 46:8)

bechor (בְּכֺר) = firstborn.

Throughout the book of Genesis, the firstborn son, who is supposed to be the future leader of the clan, is portrayed in a bad light.  Avraham’s firstborn son, Ishmael, is exiled for inappropriate “playing with his younger brother Isaac.  Esau, Isaac’s firstborn son, is portrayed and easily duped, stupid, and impulsive compared to his brother Jacob.  Jacob’s firstborn, Reuben, comes across as a shmendrick,  an ineffectual jerk.

Right after his father Jacob’s second and favorite wife, Rachel, dies in childbirth, Reuben lies with Bilhah, who is Rachel’s servant and Jacob’s concubine.  (Genesis 35:22)  Jacob is not at all happy about this, and brings it up years later on his deathbed.  (Genesis 49:4).  Is Reuben overcome with passion, and unable to see the obvious consequences?  Or is he making a foolish attempt to become the family’s leader through the ancient custom by which the new ruler assumed his office by having sex with the old ruler’s concubines?

The next time we see Reuben, he is arguing with his brothers about what to do with Joseph, Rachel’s firstborn and their father’s favorite son.  Joseph’s older brothers hate him, and now that he is approaching them in a place far from home, far from Jacob’s protection, the brothers conspire to kill him and throw him into a pit.

But Reuben says, “Let’s not strike down his life.  Don’t shed blood!  Throw him into this pit in the wilderness, but don’t lay a hand on him.”  (Genesis 37:21-22)  The Torah adds that Reuben says this “in order to rescue him from their hand, to return him to his father”.

If we take Reuben’s words at face value, he does not mind if Joseph dies in the pit—which Rashi (11th-century rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki) said was filled with scorpions.  He just does not want to be responsible for breaking the taboo against shedding a brother’s blood.

On the other hand, if we believe the explanation the Torah adds, Reuben does want to save Joseph’s life; he just doesn’t have the guts to directly contradict his brothers.  He is the bechor, and therefore the eldest, but he is afraid to stand up to the brothers he should be leading.

It gets worse.  Reuben goes away for some unspecified reason.  In his absence, the brothers, led by Judah, sell Joseph to a passing caravan as a slave.  The early rabbis invented reasons for Reuben’s absence; Rashi said either it was his day to go home and wait on his father, or he was fasting in penitence for lying with Bilhah.  But neither explanation exonerates him from a charge of criminal neglect.

Reuben returns to the pit, sees that his Joseph is gone, and asks his brothers, “And I, where will I go?”  (Genesis 37:30)  Reuben does not ask what happened to Joseph; he is only concerned about what will happen to himself, once his father finds out Joseph is missing.

The brothers trick their father Jacob into believing that Joseph was killed by a wild animal.  While Jacob mourns, Reuben does not say a thing to alleviate his father’s pain or expose the truth.

The next time Reuben shows up in the story, the ten oldest of Jacob’s twelve sons have gone to Egypt to buy grain during a famine.  The governor of Egypt (whom the brothers do not recognize as their long-lost little brother Joseph) accuses the ten men of being spies.  He imprisons Simon, then orders the rest of the men to go home and bring back their youngest brother, Benjamin.  The brothers decide this must be divine punishment for selling Joseph into slavery.  And Reuben says, “Didn’t I speak to you, saying— Don’t sin against the boy— but you didn’t listen.”  (Genesis 42:22)  As if Reuben were innocent!  As if it did any good now to say “I told you so”!

It gets worse.  When the brothers go home and explain the situation to Jacob, he refuses to part with Benjamin, his favorite son since Joseph disappeared.  Reuben tries to persuade Jacob by saying, “You can kill my two sons if I don’t bring him (Benjamin) back to you.  Put him in my hands, and I myself will return him to you.”  (Genesis 42:37)

In this one sentence, Reuben shows that he is both callous about his own sons, and stupid about human relationships.  He is callous because he cannot be sure of Benjamin’s safe return, no matter how carefully he guards him, yet he is willing to risk the lives of his own sons anyway.  And he is stupid because he assumes Jacob would consider killing two of his own grandsons a satisfactory revenge!

That is the last time Reuben speaks in the Torah.  But his name comes up again in this week’s Torah portion, Vayiggash (And he stepped forward), in a genealogy.  (Genesis 46:8).  Like the genealogy right after Reuben lies with Bilhah in 35:23, the Torah specifically refers to Reuben as the firstborn, though none of the oldest sons in subsequent generations are listed that way.  In fact, many other genealogies in the Torah don’t use the word bechor, firstborn, at all.

This may be a clue to the reason why Reuben is a jerk.  He is Jacob’s firstborn; he is supposed to inherit the mantle of authority, to be the leader of his generation, to serve as the family’s religious leader after Jacob is gone.  But he just does not have the personality traits of a leader.  When Prince Shechem offers to marry Dinah (see my blog on Vayishlach), Simon and Levi speak for their brothers and lead the action.  When Benjamin is in danger, Judah speaks for the brothers and becomes their leader.  Reuben knows he should act like the firstborn son, but he cannot; he is either too afraid of his younger brothers, or too self-centered to care about the lives of others, or too stupid to see the big picture and the consequences of his actions.

What happens today, when someone is given a leadership role but does not have what it takes to succeed?  Some people can rise to the occasion and grow into leaders.  But some cannot, no matter how good their intentions are.  I know people who are too self-centered to be fair parents or bosses, perhaps because they suffered childhood trauma beyond their control.  I know people who simply were not born with the mental ability to make complicated long-term decisions.  I know that in the past I myself have failed other people because I was too afraid to stand up for them.

The world is full of Reubens.  Once again, the Torah shows us that no human being is perfectly good, and no human being is completely evil.  We are all shmendricks sometimes.

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