During my formative years, one of my rabbeim once told our class that he wished to tell us something very profound, something we may have a hard time believing: “I want you all to know that every student in this room has the capability to become one of the gedolei hador.” I recall that at first that comment encouraged and inspired me. But within a short time, I began to feel very dejected. In fact, I have thought of that comment many times since then and it took me a long time to understand what bothered me about it.
The Torah introduces the contention between Yosef and his brothers at the beginning of Parshas Vayeshev. There the Torah states, “Yosef, at the age of seventeen years, was a shepherd with his brothers by the flock, but he was a youth with the sons of Bilhah and the sons of Zilpah, his father’s wives; and Yosef would bring evil reports about them to their father.” Rashi explains that whereas the sons of Leah (Reuven, Shimon, Levi, Yehuda, Yissachar and Zevulun) would denigrate the sons of the maids, Yosef would befriend them. This was part of what Yosef would tell his father about his brothers, “that they would belittle the sons of the maids by calling them servants.”
How could the righteous sons of Leah speak negatively about their half-brothers (Dan, Naftali, Gad and Asher)? Why did they make it a point to refer to them as sons of slaves?
Rav Shimshon Pincus zt’l relates Chazal’s teaching that Klal Yisroel descends from four Matriarchs. “We do not call anyone a matriarch except for four (women).” Those four are undoubtedly Sarah, Rivka, Rachel, and Leah. If that is true how can the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah be considered members of the shevatim if they do not descend from Leah or Rachel? Because Bilhah and Zilpah completely subjugated themselves to Rochel and Leah, Bilah and Zilpah’s sons were considered the descendants of Rochel and Leah.
There was a philosophical dispute arose between Yosef and his brothers, and it had far-reaching consequences. The sons of Leah felt hat in order for the sons of Bilhah and Ziplah to be considered as their equals, they had to subjugate themselves as well. Therefore, the sons of Leah made it a point to refer to the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah as the sons of the maids – not to denigrate them – but with the opposite intent. If they were servants to the sons of Rachel and Leah then they could have equal status vis-à-vis their lineage, and could father Tribes of Israel. The brothers felt Bilhah and Zilpah’s efforts were not enough; their own efforts were needed as well.
Yosef however believed that the mothers attitude of servility before their sisters was enough to grant the sons equal status and felt that the sons of Leah were being unnecessarily harsh.
This philosophical disagreement further manifested itself in the interpretation of Yosef’s dream. Yosef dreamed that the sun, moon, and eleven stars were bowing to him. The brother’s countered that Yosef’s dream was nonsense since the moon referred to his mother Rachel who had already died. Yosef however believed that Bilhah had fully taken the place of his mother and it was she who was represented by the moon.
In his efforts to assuage the brother’s anger at Yosef, Yaakov scolded Yosef by stating that indeed it was impossible for his mother to bow before him. But the Torah says that secretly Yaakov anticipated the fruition of Yosef’s dream, because in his heart Yaakov also felt that Bilhah had taken the place of Rachel.
This also explains Reuven’s actions. After Rachel died, Yaakov moved his bed into Bilhah’s tent. Reuven felt that it was a slight to his mother’s honor and moved the bed into Leah’s tent. Reuven felt that in order for Bilhah’s sons to be considered part of Klal Yisroel, Bilhah had to continue to subjugate herself to Leah. But Yaakov felt that Bilhah had taken Rachel’s place and therefore came before Leah, as Rachel had.
It is noteworthy that the Torah does not mention Dan, Naftali, Gad and Asher from right after their births until the brachos are given in Parshas Vayechi. Virtually every son of Rachel and Leah on the other hand, are mentioned explicitly – or at least alluded to.