First Born, but Not a Leader

Reuben, the eldest of Jacob's 12 sons, shows admirable motivations but ineffectual actions.

This week's portion, Vayishlach, begins with the momentous reunion of Jacob and Esau, continues with the rape of Jacob's daughter Dinah and the vengeance wreaked by her brothers on the rapist and his village, and concludes with Rachel's death in childbirth and the genealogy of Esau. In the midst of this action-packed portion, it is easy to overlook one key verse, even though the events described in that verse will have serious repercussions throughout the rest of Genesis and beyond. Genesis 35:22 states: "And when Israel dwelt in that land, Reuben went and lay with Bilhah, his father's concubine, and Israel heard, and Jacob's sons were 12." (Jacob had two wives, Leah and Rachel, and two concubines, Zilpah and Bilhah, who were Leah's and Rachel's maids, respectively.)

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The verse is difficult to understand and has been subject to various interpretations. What exactly does Reuben do? What were his intentions? Nachmanides, a medieval biblical commentator, understands Reuben's actions in a mercenary way. Reuben "defiled" Bilhah to prevent her from providing Jacob with more sons, who would further subdivide Reuben's inheritance. Nachmanides explains that Reuben, as the first born, stood to inherit twice what his siblings would receive from their father and thus had more to lose than the other brothers. Because Reuben was preternaturally occupied with his status as eldest son, he is aptly punished by losing his first-born rights.

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