Rabbi Yitzchak Holland
Former Rosh Kollel in Atlanta
When Yaakov Avinu blesses his sons, he begins with his oldest son, Reuven:
“Reuven, you are my firstborn, my strength and the first of my vigor; superior in rank and superior in might. Impetuous like water, you shall not have more, for you ascended upon the bed of your father; then you profaned [Him Who] ascended upon my couch.” (Breishit 49:3-4)
Both Targum Onkelos and Rashi explain that Yaakov tells Reuven: You were meant to rise above your brothers in terms of s’ait (rank) and oz (might). S’ait refers to the kehunah (priesthood), which includes the nesiat kapayim, and oz refers to the malchut (kingship). As the pasuk says:
“And may He grant might (oz) to His King.” (Shmuel I 2:10)
In addition, as the bechor, you, Reuven, were supposed to inherit two portions in Eretz Yisrael, according to the laws of primogeniture. However, your inherent impetuosity caused you to “not have more” than your brothers. The same character trait that drove Reuven to “disturb his father’s bed” causes him to lose everything. Levi receives the kehunah; Yehudah is granted the malchut; and Yosef’s two sons – Menasheh and Ephraim – get part of the bechorah and inherit two portions in Eretz Yisrael.
Yet, what exactly did Reuven do when he “disturbed his father’s bed”?
The Gemara (BT Shabbat 55b) lists three opinions:
Reuven literally sinned with his father’s pilegesh.
Reuven only thought about sinning, but fear of the sin deterred him from actually committing the sin. Thus, Yaakov’s rebuke refers to Reuven’s thoughts.
Reuven upheld his mother Leah’s honor. When he saw that after Rachel’s death, Yaakov moved his couch to Rachel’s maidservant Bilhah’s tent, Reuven moved it to his mother Leah’s tent. In this case, Yaakov rebukes Reuven for causing the Shechinah to depart from Bilhah’s tent, because Yaakov would place his couch in the tent where the Shechinah dwelled. In other words, Reuven’s conduct appears to reflect a lack of kibbud av. He should have trusted Yaakov’s judgment rather than acting on his own accord.
In any event, all three opinions seem to suggest that Reuven sinned. How can this be?
The Gemara (ibid) states:
“R’ Shmuel bar Nachmani said in the name of R’ Yonatan, ‘Whoever says that Reuven sinned is simply mistaken.’”
However, the Gemara means that one who says that Reuven committed arayot (sexual immorality) is mistaken and that he did not even think about committing arayot.
But, then, what exactly did Reuven do, according to the first and second opinions? Also, what caused him to lose everything?
Reuven was concerned for Beit Yaakov. He felt that Yaakov should be closest to Leah, rather than to Bilhah. After all, Leah was on the highest spiritual level, and thus, Reuven believed that he was acting l’shem Shamayim (for the sake of Heaven). Indeed, arayot never crossed his mind; he had neither a desire nor a yetzer hara (evil inclination) to sin.
Nevertheless, Reuven loses everything because of his impetuosity and indiscretion. If he stopped and considered his actions, he would have realized that he was about to embark on a forbidden step. Therefore, Yaakov refers to Reuven as “pachaz kamayim” (“impetuous like water”). Reuven’s haste and restlessness are the reasons that he “shall not have more,” because both the kehunah and the malchut require constant judiciousness and caution.
Thus, Reuven loses the kehunah and the malchut. But why does he lose the bechorah as well?
When a baby is born, he inherits some of his father’s traits – both the good and the bad. Thus, Avraham Avinu inherited some of his father Terach’s negative traits, including his propensity for idolatry. Yet, Avraham overcame all of this and was a tzadik (righteous man). HaKadosh Baruch Hu chose Avraham and enabled him to transfer all of his inherent evil to his oldest son, Yishmael. Hence, Yitzchak was born with Avraham’s positive traits, but he also acquired a small portion of the bad. However, Yitzchak was able to eliminate the remaining evil by giving it to Esav. Therefore, Yaakov was born pure, and he became the father of twelve holy shvatim (tribes).
Lavan gave Leah to Yaakov, but Yaakov thought she was Rachel. In other words, Lavan “disturbed Yaakov’s bed,” and Reuven was the result. Consequently, even though Yaakov was pure and all of his sons should have been born pure as well, Reuven was born with a certain degree of impurity. The “disturbance of the bed” that led to Reuven’s birth eventually caused him to “disturb his father’s bed” as well.
When Yaakov saw that Reuven was “pachaz kamayim” and that he was unable to overcome his inborn character trait, Yaakov transferred the bechorah to Yosef, who truly deserved it.
Why did Yosef deserve the bechorah? The answer is that he was Rachel’s bechor. Yaakov thought he was marrying Rachel, and therefore, Yosef should have been Yaakov’s bechor as well. However, due to Lavan’s intervention, matters developed otherwise. Nevertheless, according to Yaakov’s thinking, Yosef was to have been the bechor, and hence, Yosef received the double portion.
If Reuven had overcome his inherent impetuosity and had acted cautiously, he would have earned the kehunah, the malchut, and a double portion in Eretz Yisrael.