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.) 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.
The Talmud (in Shabbat 55b) describes Reuben's actions in a far more benevolent light. First, the Talmud explains that Reuben did not actually lay with Bilhah. Instead, Reuben switched Jacob's bed from Bilhah's tent to his mother Leah's tent. Apparently, after the death of Jacob's beloved Rachel, Jacob had sought comfort in the arms of Rachel's maid Bilhah. Reuben resented this humiliating slight to his mother, Leah, saying "If my mother's sister [Rachel] was a rival to my mother, shall her sister's maid be a rival [as well]?" He then moved his father's bed in an attempt to rectify the situation.
While this portrayal of Reuben is more positive than Nachmanides' reading, it raises troubling issues as well. Although we understand Reuben's concern for his mother, it is still inappropriate for a child to interfere in his parents' sexual relationship.
Reuben's unusual involvement in his parents' marriage extends all the way back to his birth. God sees that Leah is hated by Jacob and so he opens her womb. Leah names her son Reuben because, she says, "God has seen [ra'ah] my pain, for now my husband will love me."
The midrash in "Genesis Rabbah" 71:2 explains that Jacob intended to divorce Leah, but he reconsidered once he discovered that she was pregnant. Reuben enters the world with a heavy weight on his newborn shoulders. His mother sees him as the route to his father's love, and his father sees him as the sole reason to stay married to his mother. This pressure influenced Reuben's sense of self and may have skewed his ability to evaluate his appropriate role in the goings-on around him.
When Reuben is but a few years old, he brings home "mandrakes" for his mother. Commentators understand the mandrakes as either an aphrodisiac or a fertility drug, and they claim that the child Reuben was trying to help his mother attract the attentions of his father. As in the Talmud's understanding of the Bilhah episode, Reuben's intentions are laudable, but his interference with his parents' personal life is improper.