Read it here in the Yiddisher Koichav or below:
Between husband and wife, and father and son
by Rabbi Avi Billet
Issue of December 4, 2009/ 17 Kislev 5770
Our tradition maintains that one merit Yaakov had over his father and grandfather is that all of his sons were righteous – no Eisav or Yishmael in the lot – allowing him to be the one after whom the Jewish nation is named – B’nei Yisrael, the children of Israel.
With this in mind, Bereishit 35:22 leaves us scratching our heads. “While Yaakov was dwelling [undisturbed] in the land, Reuven went and lay “et” Bilhah, his father’s concubine, and Israel heard about it… and Yaakov’s sons were twelve [in number].”
What happened with Reuven and Bilhah? Did he or didn’t he? Two factors need to be considered: 1. What is the meaning of the word “et”? 2. How well do we understand the words in the Talmud when explaining a seeming passage of narrative in the Torah?
Rabbi David Fohrman shares an important discussion of the meaning of the word “et” in his book, “The Beast that Crouches at the Door” (Devora Publishing, 2007, p. 117-124). Sometimes it means “with,” but sometimes it is a grammatical tool used to connect a verb to a direct object. Certainly the verse is not as simple as it seems.
The Talmud (Megillah 25a) goes so far as to say the verse should be read and not translated, due to the difficult nature of understanding the almost clear facts of the case.
But the Talmud says elsewhere (Shabbat 55b), that anyone who claims Reuven sinned is mistaken, because the verse concludes saying Yaakov had twelve sons – meaning none of them were rejected. Instead, we are to understand that Reuven mixed up beds, and the Torah only “makes it seem as if” he had relations with his father’s wife/concubine, even though he did not.
However, the Talmud also says (Shabbat 56a) that anyone who claims King David sinned is mistaken. But King David himself admitted that he sinned (Samuel II 12:13 and 24:10). If we assume, as the Talmud implies, that King David was correct in his actions with Batsheva and the census, according to King David we are mistaken.
So let us assume for a moment that Reuven’s actions here are a faux pas. Having said that, what happened?
Ramban suggests Reuven was fearful of Yaakov fulfilling God’s command of 35:11 to have more children, because he thought he would lose out more of his inheritance. His “older” mother was no longer fertile, Rachel was dead, as was Zilpah. So he switched the beds around, which worked because Yaakov did not subsequently have more children.
Without apologetics, Bchor Shor and Ibn Ezra claim Reuven did what the Torah says he did. Chizkuni, Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch and others suggest, most likely on the coattails of the Tanchuma, that Reuven lay in the room, which discouraged Yaakov from going there. (Ro”sh says he slept on her bed many nights to discourage his father from coming back, even though he did not sin in the way we’d generally suspect.) Once that happened, Yaakov chose to remain celibate for the rest of his days.
The Sha’kh defends Reuven saying Yaakov understood Reuven’s sincere intentions, to keep the family unit intact, and to maintain the requisite number of children required to begin a new nation. Nachor, Yishmael, and Eisav combined with Seir each had twelve sons. Now that Binyamin was born, Yaakov had twelve sons.
Perhaps Reuven thought, “If he has more children, some of his original 12 will be rejected. Perhaps he’ll start by rejecting some of Leah’s children.” So he took matters into his own hands to avoid the creation of more siblings.
Maskil L’David has the most innovative interpretation. Following the line of Reuven mixing the beds, causing his father to spend his evenings with Leah, he says the Torah is indicating the switch through the specific words it chooses.
Mix around the letters of “Vayishkav” (וישכב) and you have “Vayachabosh” (ויכבש) (and he cornered). Mix around “Pilegesh” (פילגש) (concubine – an odd choice because Bilhah is elsewhere called a “wife”) and you have “She’pileg” (שפילג) (that he caused a rift). In other words, he cornered Bilhah, and caused a rift between her and his father, causing Yaakov to seek companionship elsewhere. In this vein, Reuven was punished “measure for measure.” Since he switched around beds, the letters in the Torah were “switched around” to make him look worse.
No matter how we look at Reuven’s deed, what he did was not nice. Whether Bilhah was now prohibited to Yaakov is one question, but that Yaakov chose celibacy as a course of reaction was his own free will – not Reuven’s fault.
Why did Yaakov get angry, as evidenced from the way he spoke to Reuven in Bereishit 49:3-4, “for having moved the beds,” particularly if his intentions may have been noble?
Because no one has the right to cause a rift between a husband and wife.
The relationship between spouses is holy and sacred. Not only should they view it that way, but everyone who meets them needs to understand boundaries in relating to a couple. Particularly when it comes to relating to a married person of the opposite gender, it is important to bear in mind the holiness of the person’s “kiddushin” and to respect space, privacy, and the individual’s personal commitment to the holy bond of matrimony.