Parashat Vayishlah: A small iniquity, a large iniquity

Simple things are never insignificant.

December 15, 2016 15:22
4 minute read.

A woman lights a candle outside the site believed to be Rachel’s tomb that is mentioned in this week’s portion, outside Bethlehem, 2007. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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In this week’s parasha of Vayishlah we read a short story that is hard to digest. Jacob returns from Haran to his parents’ home in Canaan after 22 years of exile. When he left his parents, he was poor, alone and frightened. After 22 years, he returns as the head of a tribe, accompanied by four women, 11 children and many assets.

On the way, a short distance before reaching his destination, his parents’ home in Hebron, his beloved wife Rachel gives birth to her second son, Jacob’s 12th, and dies in childbirth. This in itself is a very sad story, but it is not the one that is hard to digest.

Immediately following Rachel’s death and burial on the main road, we read a short and horrifying story: “Reuben went and lay with Bilhah, his father’s concubine” (Genesis 35:22).

What was the background to this deed? What motivated Reuben to do such a thing and what was he hoping to gain by it? How did Jacob deal with his oldest son’s act? The sages of the Talmud explained this story in a way that seems odd at first glance: “R. Samuel b. Nahman said in R. Jonathan’s name: Whoever maintains that Reuben sinned is merely making an error.... Then how do I interpret, ‘and he lay with Bilhah, his father’s concubine’? This teaches that he transposed his father’s couch, and the Writ imputes [blame] to him as though he had lain with her” (Shabbat 55).

From where did the sages of the Talmud get this interpretation? They looked at the story’s context and understood that it could not be taken literally. Immediately after the short description of Reuben’s act, the Torah says: “and so, the sons of Jacob were 12. The sons of Leah [were] Reuben, Jacob’s firstborn....” If Reuben had indeed committed the act described, why would the Torah emphasize right afterward that Jacob had 12 sons and the oldest was Reuben? One would expect that after such a deed, if it had indeed occurred, Reuben would be completely rejected by Jacob’s family.

Furthermore, when we read Jacob’s words before he dies, when he parts from his sons, we see that Reuben is punished for his deed and he is denied the privileges of the firstborn. But there the punishment ends.

Reuben is not rejected by the family and is not even strongly rebuked for what he did.

Why, then, did Reuben move his father’s bed? Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, France, 11th century) explained that after Rachel’s death, Jacob took his bed from Rachel’s tent and transferred it to the tent of Bilhah, Rachel’s maidservant, rather than to the tent of his other wife, Leah. This act and the accompanying humiliation hurt Reuben and he lost his senses. Impulsively, he went and hid his father’s bed.

This interpretation seems reasonable but raises another question: If Reuben did not actually commit the serious act described in the Torah, but only hid his father’s bed, why is the description in the Torah so incriminating? The reader who does not discern the narrative context and is unaware of the sages’ interpretation would be convinced that the story describes a disgraceful and scandalous act. Wouldn’t one expect the Torah to describe Reuben’s behavior more accurately and less harshly? During the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, a Jewish spiritual movement called the Musar (morality) movement developed. This movement viewed Judaism as a way to repair man in all spheres of life, and gave in-depth interpretations to mitzvot and Torah stories through psychological analysis and comprehension of the human spirit. Its adherents developed unique methods of understanding the motives behind the acts described by the Torah and they clarified the lessons learned from these stories.

One of the important thinkers of the Musar movement was Rabbi Natan Zvi Finkel (1849-1927), called the Saba (grandpa) of Slabodka for the yeshiva he founded in Slabodka, Lithuania. He saw the question regarding Reuben’s actions as an opening into a deep understanding of man’s soul.

In man’s soul, he said, there are urges that could lead him to the ugliest of actions. But these drives are not always expressed fully. Sometimes they are expressed in a relatively mild manner, as a result of the circumstances, moral restraint, social norms, etc. But this does not mean that the act performed points to the whole picture of what is happening in the person’s soul. It could be that a small iniquity is indicative of a much larger one that was not fully implemented.

This is how it was with Reuben. Though his act was a relatively minor iniquity, the Torah tells us that behind this deed lay a serious offense that might have led to a much more grievous act. This is why it was important that we read the blatant and harsh description.

We mustn’t think that a small iniquity is inconsequential.

There might be a much stronger emotional basis, which is latent, that for now is being somehow restrained.

This understanding provides us with a different perspective regarding “minor” moral issues. Simple things are never insignificant. The most minor of inequities can indicate deep moral corruption. Distancing oneself from iniquities can never lead to greater ones. Integrity, honesty and innocence are values that should guide us even in our simplest and most minor of actions.

The writer is the rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.

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