Midrash and Method
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Meir Levin

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Vayetse 5765

Reuven's Sin.

There are statements of Chazal that appear to contradict the apparent meaning of explicit verses. When we do not understand the motivation for interpreting as they did, we often tend to assign such statements to derash rather than pshat. As we had seen multiple times in this series, a careful review of all exegetical issues that surround an interpretation, not infrequently yields up the basis that supports it. Calling such passages ideologically motivated is a self fulfilling prophecy. It becomes a stumbling block to discovering the exegetical background of the interpretation.

It is also important to consider what alternatives were available to Chazal to solve the ideological issues. If there were other explanation and especially if they were readily available, but Chazal did not use them, exegetical rather than ideological motivation becomes more likely.

Of Reuven we are told in Yakov's blessing:

Reuven, you are my firstborn, my might and the beginning of my strength….Running like water, you shall not rule, for you went up to your father's bed; then you defiled her that goes up on my couch (Genesis 49:3-4).

This in itself is a reference to Genesis 35:22:

When Israel dwelt in that land, Reuven went and lay with Blihah, the concubine of his father, and Israel heard of it.

The connection is made explicit in Chronicles.

The sons of Reuven, the firstborn of Israel, for he is the firstborn, and in defiling the bed-sheets of his father, the birthright was given to sons of Joseph (Chronicles, 5:1)

No question there is a first order ideological difficulty. Taking these verses literally subverts the high regard in which we hold the patriarchs; neither is it a credit to their descendents. To justify Reuven, however, it is not necessary to deny that a transgression took place. Extra-Rabbinic sources tended to attribute Reuven's failing to a temporary lapse in judgment or on to assign some of the fault to Bilhah herself[1]. It is interesting that a similar approach was used by Chazal in explaining the incident of Yehuda and Tamar but not that of Reuven and Bilhah.

The Chazal wrote:

Whoever says that Reuven sinned is mistaken. He tampered with his father's bed and the Torah considers it as if he lay with Bilhah (Shabbos 55b).
Reuven was redressing the insult to his mother. He said: If my mother's sister was a rival to my mother, shall the maid of my mother also be a rival to my mother? He went and tampered with her bed (ibid).
The episode of Reuven is read (in public) but not translated (so as not to embarrass Reuven) (Megilah 25a).

The first thought here is that Chazal felt the need defend our forefathers from unseemly accusations, just as they defended David from the opprobrium of the sin of Batsheva. However, if we review the image of Reuven that naturally arises from the various episodes in Chumash, a certain picture arises. It is my contention that the Chazal followed this impression in understanding the episode of Reuven and Bilhah.

We first meet Reuven in this week's parsha as a son who defends his mother's honor, in the incident of dudaim. His next appearance is at the well in which Yosef was thrown. At that time he attempts to save him from the wrath of his brothers. Finally, we find him attempting to persuade Yakov to allow them to return to Egypt so that the family obtains food and survives famine. In fact, he is willing to sacrifice his own children to save others.

The picture that emerges is that of a passionate fighter on behalf of the disadvantaged and oppressed. In particular, he is a defender of Leah against Rachel's dominance; in fact, that is how we first meet him in this parsha.

It is that consideration of the wider background that led Chazal to an explanation that, perhaps, fits the local context somewhat less well than the plain pshat; however, it fits the extended context much better. Another way to express it is to say that the plain meaning suffers from the disadvantage of being contradictory to Reuven's persona as the Torah generally describes it. The explanation of Chazal, on the other hand, is consistent with it and in fact broadens it and adds detail[2]. The tension between local and wider context is germane to any interpretative method. A decision of how to balance this tension is at the essence of an interpretative approach and every commentator must make trade-offs and compromises between slavish fidelity to the pshat and giving due to the wider context. Chazal chose to weigh this balance toward the wider rather than local context; that is their perrogative as interpreters and it in no way invalidates their interpretations.

Reuven fought the battle for his mother's honor when we first met him. He was still fighting the same battle after her death.[3]

I appreciate comments or questions at mlevinmd@aol.com

1 1. Reuven saw Bilhah bathing and desired her (Jubilees 33:2). It echoes the description of the sin of David who similarly desired Batsheva when he saw her bathing. The Chazal, of course, also said of David that he did not sin and used the same language regarding him as they used regarding Reuven (Shabbos ibid). Yet, they elected not to use this defense for Reuven.
2. Bilha became drunk and uncovered herself in her tent. Reuven said: Had I not seen Bilhah bathing in a covered place, I would not have fallen into this great iniquity. For my mind taking in the thought of the woman's nakedness would not allow mw to sleep until I had done this abominable thing. (Testament of Reuben 3:11-15).

2 Calling a motivation exegetical versus ideological misses the wider point. Exegesis and ideology are inseparable for if we believe that Reuven could not sin in such a base manner, there comes to be a contradiction , which needs to be resolved exegetically. It is in principle, no different than any other contradiction which we need to be resolved using the interpretative tools at our disposal.

3 The same is true in regards to David. The sin of Batsheva is in conflict with his entire personality as it is described in Tanach. It is therefore very reasonable to bring it into consonance with it by using various explanations. An excellent discussion of how Chazal approached the sin of David and Batsheva can be found in a book length treatment by Yakov Meidan, David V' Batsheva: Hachet, Haonesh Vhatikun, Tevunot, TSHS"B