One of the most shocking verses in the entirety of the Torah appears in this week’s parsha, leading, in fact, to a deliberate cover up of sorts.
“And it was when Israel dwelled in that land, that Reuven went and he lay with Bilha, his father’s concubine. And Israel heard. And the sons of Jacob were twelve” (Gen. 35:22).
As the Ibn Ezra tells us in one of his commentaries, “The ancients explained this well and ‘the wise man hides his shame’ (Proverbs 12:16).” He refers here to the Midrash most famously cited in the Gemara in Shabbat (55b), that tells us that the verse should not be read literally. Rather, we should understand it a condemnation of a much more – relatively speaking – mild act: Reuven, upset that in the wake of Rachel’s death Yaakov now shared a room with Bilha, a concubine, moved his father’s bed from Bilha’s tent to Leah’s.
In Ibn Ezra’s opinion, the Sages wisely tell us not to shame ourselves, as in the first half of the verse he cites from (Proverbs): “The fool makes his anger public.” Shlomo HaMelech and the Sages remind us that “the fool makes his anger public; the wise man hides his shame.” In general, we should not embarrass ourselves by publicizing our failures, let alone the failures of others, G-d forbid.
However, we must admit that the next time he wrote a commentary to the Torah, Ibn Ezra retained the much more painful plain sense of the verse. The same is true of Rav Yosef Bechor Shor, Radak, Ralbag and, of course, Unkelos, whose translation is most authoritative.
If we read the verse literally, we come to an awful realization: Yaakov’s sons may have violated all three of the worst transgressions in the Torah, each so terrible that it would be better to be killed than to violate them (ye’hareg ve’al ya’avor): murder, idolatry, and extreme licentious behaviors. First, Yaakov’s sons murdered many of the inhabitants of Shechem. A simplistic reading of the story belies the moral complexity of the act but, at any rate, Yaakov angrily berates Shimon and Levi that “you have made me ugly and embarrassed me before the inhabitants of this land” (34:30).
Next, before Yaakov goes to make an alter and worship Hashem in Bet El, he admonishes “his house and all who were with him: remove the foreign gods from among you; purify yourselves and change your clothes” (35:2). So, some form of idolatry had entered the house of Israel. Last, of course, is the apparent violation of sexual morality by his eldest son Reuven.
Every parent faces difficulties with the behavior of their children, now as then. But perhaps few have struggled as much as Yaakov did. Which is why it is nothing short of heroic that Yaakov managed to keep all twelve of his sons in the fold.
As we look inside our Chumashim this week, we notice that our verse, which details Reuven’s sin and his father’s response, is broken into two. There is a space inside the text, indicating that this single verse is actually made up of two separate parashiyot, traditional sections of the Torah. Thus, the verse actually reads like this:
And it was when Israel dwelled in that land, that Reuven went and he lay with Bilha, his father’s concubine. And Israel heard. (End section)
(New section) And the sons of Jacob were twelve.
Why is this so? Ramban exlains:
“And Israel heard”: the verse tells us of his humility, because he heard that his son violated his bed but he did not command to throw him out from among his sons. Instead, he is numbered among them, ‘And they were twelve,’ and (Reuven) is listed first.
“This is why the Torah made two sections (parashiyot) into one verse. Although it is the beginning of a new topic that comes to count the tribes, since they were now all born, it hints that Reuven was not pushed away because of his actions.”
Reuven’s violation must have been unimaginably difficult to handle. Yet, Yaakov did not turn him away. At the end of his life, Yaakov rebukes his children before his death, telling them what they need to know in order to stay in the fold (See Shemot Rabbah 1:1). Yet, here he is all mercy and patience. As the Ralbag writes:
“The twelfth lesson (of this section) is regarding character. That is, it is fitting for a man not to become extremely angry at his mature son over his despicable deeds because he may drive him away and lose him. Rather, it is right to bring him as close as possible to himself in order to guide him on the straight path. And this is the reason that (the Torah) tells that Israel had already heard of the despicable act that Reuven did, but it did not mention that he became angry with him. Nonetheless, on the day he gave his will to his sons, he punished (Reuven) for this despicable act, and took the status of firstborn away from him and gave it to Joseph.”
We have read recently, in these very pages, about the difficulties facing our broader community and about the difficulties in raising our children to stay along our straight, upright, and revealed path. Yet, we should take great comfort and insight from our forefather’s experiences.
First, yes, it is incredibly difficult to keep our children and students on the straight and narrow. As we know. Avraham did not succeed with Yishmael, Yitzchak did not succeed with Eisav, Moshe did not succeed with his sons, Eli and Shmuel failed with theirs, and so on.
Even Yaakov, one of the few great figures who kept all of his children loyal to Avraham’s path, went through challenges that we would not wish on anyone. He “struggled and won” as his new name Yisrael indicates. If Yaakov, who succeeded with his children, endured such remarkable challenges, then we can reasonably comfort ourselves that, not sharing his elevated moral, intellectual, and spiritual stature, we must expect serious difficulties as well.
Second, we may take a leaf from Yaakov’s book on how to deal with such struggles. As Ramban tells us, Yaakov was exceptionally humble, looking past personal insult and ego to forgive his son. Ralbag tells us that he knew when to draw his children close and when to rebuke them. All much easier said than done. But we must try.
If we stand aside and wait, if we do nothing but send our children to day school and hope their teachers somehow raise them to be loyal children of Israel, we will not succeed. But if we draw them close, guide them, and rebuke them in turn and at the right moments, we may also merit that it will be said of us and our children, “V’eleh shemot b’nei Yisrael – And these are the children of Israel.”