Reuben: The Might-Have-Been

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Reuben is the greatest “might-have-been” in the Torah. His father Jacob says as much in his dying words:

“Reuben, you are my firstborn, My power and the beginning of my might, Pre-eminent in bearing and pre-eminent in strength. Unstable as water, you will not be pre-eminent . . .”

His story is of potential unfulfilled, virtue not quite realized, greatness so close yet unachieved. How so? What does his example teach us about what it takes to live an accomplished life?

There is an extraordinary moment in Vayeshev. The Torah freeze-frames a critical juncture in Reuben’s life, showing the diverging paths he faced when confronted with a moral challenge.

The background to the scene is the early years of Joseph, Jacob’s child by his second wife and first love, Rachel. Jacob – the man who loves more than any other figure in Bereishit – cannot help showing his favoritism, to the hurt and slight of the other sons. The vignettes we have of Joseph as an adolescent are (as Rashi notes) less than endearing. He tells tales to his father about his brothers. He has dreams in which his family bow down to him, and worse – he reports them. There is about him, as the commentators observe, the air of a spoiled child. His father tolerates his behaviour and even gives him a richly embroidered cloak, the famous “coat of many colours,” the sight of which acts as a constant provocation to the other sons.

One day, as his brothers are tending the flocks far from home, Jacob sends him to see how they are doing. On this encounter, the whole future of the children of Israel will depend. The brothers see Joseph from afar, and the sight of the cloak enrages them. They realize that, alone with no one to see them, they can kill Joseph and concoct a tale that will be impossible to refute. Only Reuben protests. It is at this point the Torah does something it does nowhere else. It makes a statement that, construed literally, is obviously false – indeed, the text goes on immediately to show that it was not quite so. The text states: “Reuben heard and saved him [Joseph] from their hands.” He did not. The discrepancy is so obvious that most translations simply do not translate the phrase literally. What Reuben actually did was to attempt to save him. The phrase “Reuben heard and saved him” tells us what might have been, not what actually was.

Reuben’s plan was simple. He told the brothers not to kill Joseph but to let him die:

“Let’s not take his life,” he said. “Don’t shed any blood. Throw him into this cistern here in the desert, but don’t lay a hand on him.”

The text then – again unusually, for it is rare for the Torah to describe a person’s thoughts – explains Reuben’s intention: “[Reuben said this] in order to save him from their hand and take him back to his father.” Reuben had no intention of letting Joseph die. His plan was to persuade the brothers to leave him in the pit so that, when their attention was elsewhere, he could come back to it, lift Joseph out and take him home.

What happens next is obscure, though the outcome is clear. While Reuben was somewhere else, Joseph was taken from the pit and sold to a passing caravan of merchants who carry him to Egypt to be sold as a slave. The text itself makes it impossible to determine whether this was done by the other brothers at the suggestion of Judah, or by passing Midianites (Nechamah Leibowitz has a fine analysis of the various readings given by the commentators). Reuben, unaware of all this, returns to the pit to rescue Joseph but finds him gone. He is bereft. “When Reuben returned to the cistern and saw that Joseph was not there, he tore his clothes. He went back to his brothers and said, ‘The boy is gone! And I, where can go?’”

Commenting on this episode, the Midrash states:

If Reuben had only known that the Holy One, blessed be He, would write of him, “And Reuben heard and saved him from their hands,” he would have picked him up on his shoulders and carried him back to his father.

This is a deeply puzzling comment. Did Reuben really need the endorsement of Heaven to do the right thing? Did he need God’s approval before rescuing his brother?. Yet, as we will see, it holds the essential clue about Reuben’s character. It tells us what stands between what might-have-been and what was.

Reuben is the Hamlet of Bereishit, whose “native hue of resolution” is “sicklied o’er by the pale cast of thought.” He is a person of good intentions. He cares. He thinks. He is not led by the crowd or by his darker instincts. He penetrates to the moral core of a situation. That is the first thing we notice about him. The second, however, is that somehow his interventions backfire. They fail to achieve their effect. Attempting to make things better, Reuben makes them worse. The Torah clearly wants us to reflect on Reuben’s character. To this end it paints a portrait of the young man, in a series of rapidly sketched yet revealing vignettes.

In the first, we see him in the fields during the wheat harvest. He finds some mandrakes. From the context it appears that mandrakes were believed to be both an aphrodisiac and a fertility drug (John Donne refers to this in a famous poem: “Get with child a mandrake root”). His first thought is to give them to his mother Leah. This tells us something about Reuben. He is not thinking about himself but about her. He knows she feels unloved, and identifies with her anguish with all the sensitivity of an eldest son. He hopes that, with the aid of the mandrakes, Leah will be able to win Jacob’s attention, perhaps even his love.

It is a strikingly mature and thoughtful act. Yet it has negative consequences. It provokes a bitter row between the two sisters, Leah and Rachel. Rachel sees the mandrakes and wants them for herself. The following exchange then takes place:

During wheat harvest, Reuben went out into the fields and found some mandrake plants, which he brought to his mother Leah. Rachel said to Leah, “Please give me some of your son’s mandrakes.” But she said to her, “Wasn’t it enough that you took away my husband? Will you take my son’s mandrakes too?”

This is the only time that angry words are reported between the two sisters. Reuben, seeking to help Leah, creates a scene in which her bitterness rises to the surface. That is scene one.

Scene two takes place when Rachel dies. An obscure incident takes place which has tragic consequences. The biblical text is cryptic:

So Rachel died and was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem). Over her tomb Jacob set up a pillar, and to this day that pillar marks Rachel’s tomb. Israel moved on again and pitched his tent beyond Migdal Eder. While Israel was living in that region, Reuben went in and slept with his father’s concubine Bilhah, and Israel heard of it . . .

Read literally, this suggests that Reuben took his father’s place in Bilhah’s tent – an almost Oedipal act of displacement, as we discover later in the Bible when Absolom does the same with his father David’s concubine (II Samuel 16: 21). Rashi, following midrashic tradition, prefers a gentler explanation. When Rachel died, Jacob, who had slept in her tent, moved his bed to the tent of Bilhah, her handmaid. This, for Reuben, was an unbearable provocation. It was bad enough that Jacob preferred Rachel to her sister Leah, but intolerable that he should prefer her handmaid to his mother. He therefore removed Jacob’s bed from Bilhah’s tent to Leah’s.

Even according to this interpretation, however, it is clear that Jacob misunderstood the act and believed that his son had in fact usurped his place. He never forgot or forgave the incident and on his death-bed he reminded Reuben of it:

Unstable as water, you will not be pre-eminent, For you went up onto your father’s bed, Onto my couch and defiled it.

Earlier, at the time of the event itself, the text uses an unusual stylistic device. After the words, “And Israel heard of it,” the Masoretic text indicates a paragraph break in the middle of a sentence . The effect is to signal a silence , a complete breakdown in communication. Hence the pathos of the rabbinic interpretation of the passage, which certainly fits all we know about Reuben. He was not seeking to displace Jacob but rather to draw his attention to the hurt and distress of Leah. Yet Jacob says nothing, giving Reuben no opportunity to clear his name or explain why he did what he did. The result: a second tragedy.

Inevitably, we are drawn to the third scene, chronologically the first – Reuben’s birth. One does not need to be a Freudian to hear, in this passage, the key to Reuben’s character. Leah, we recall, had been substituted for Rachel on the wedding night. It was Rachel whom Jacob loved and thought he was marrying, after seven years working for her father Laban. The next morning, when Jacob discovered the identity of his new wife, there was an angry scene between the two men. Jacob accuses Laban of deception. Laban replies, “It is not done in our place to give the younger before the elder” (hinting that this is what Jacob had done by disguising himself as Esau and taking his blessing, as if to say: what right have you to complain if what you did is done to you in return).

Jacob does marry Rachel a week later, and thereafter Leah must live with the knowledge that she was not her husband’s choice. There then follows a passage of great pathos:

When the Lord saw that Leah was not loved, he opened her womb, but Rachel was barren. Leah became pregnant and gave birth to a son. She named him Reuben [“see, a son”], for she said, “It is because the Lord has seen my misery. Surely my husband will love me now.” She conceived again, and when she gave birth to a son she said, “Because the Lord heard that I am not loved, he gave me this one too.” So she named him Shimon.

Leah hoped that the birth of Reuben would make Jacob love her. But he does not. We know this because she is still voicing the same hope when Shimon is born. Reuben has to carry with him throughout his life the knowledge of his mother’s slight and his father’s lack of attention. Significantly, it is Leah, not Jacob, who gives both Reuben and Shimon their names. It is almost as if Jacob was not there.

We now have a rich, composite and penetrating portrait of Reuben – and we now know that the psychological key to his character is already given at his birth.

Jacob is a hero of faith, the man who gave Israel its name, the only patriarch all of whose children remained within the covenant. Yet the complexity of Jacob’s character is light years away from the idealised heroes of other religious traditions. In Jacob we discover that the life of faith is not simple. Not by accident does his name Israel mean “the one who wrestled with God and with human beings and prevailed.” We also discover something else. Every virtue carries with it a corresponding danger. The person who is over-generous may condemn his own family to poverty. The individual (like Aaron) who chooses peace at any price can sometimes allow those around him to make a golden calf. There is no single authoritative role model in Judaism. Instead there are many: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; Moses, Aaron and Miriam; kings, prophets and priests; masters of halachah and aggadah; Sages and saints, poets and philosophers. The reason is that no one can embody all the virtues all the time. A strength here is a weakness there.

Jacob loved, passionately and deeply. That was his strength, but also his weakness. His love for Rachel meant that he could not bestow equal favour on Leah. His longing for a child by Rachel meant that there was something lacking in his relationship with Leah’s firstborn, Reuben. Had he loved less, there might have been no problem. He might have divided his attention more equally. But had he loved less, he would not have been Jacob.

The result, however, is that Reuben carries with him a lack of confidence, an uncertainty, that at critical moments robs him of his capacity to carry through a course of action that he knows to be right. He begins well but does not drive the deed to closure. Returning with the mandrakes he might have bided his time until Leah was alone. After Rachel’s death he might have spoken directly to his father instead of moving the beds. In the face of his brothers’ murderous intentions toward Joseph he might, as the Midrash says, have simply carried him home. Instead he hesitated, choosing to put off the moment until the brothers were elsewhere. The result was tragedy. It is impossible not to recognise in Reuben a person of the highest ethical sensibilities. But though he had conscience, he lacked courage. He knew what was right, but lacked the resolve to do it boldly and decisively. In that hesitation, more was lost than Joseph. So too was Reuben’s chance to become the hero he might and should have been.

If Reuben had only known – says the Midrash. If only he had known that the Torah would write of him, “And Reuben heard and saved him from their hands” – meaning that his intention was known and valued by God as if it were the deed. Knowing this, he might have found the courage to carry it through into action. But Reuben could not know. He had not read the story. None of us can read the story of our life – we can only live it. The result is that we live in and with uncertainty. Doubt can lead to delay until the moment is lost. In a moment of arrested intention, Reuben lost his chance of changing history.

Reuben could not read his story, but we can. If there is a single verse in Tanach that stands as a commentary on his life it is the inexpressibly poignant line from Psalm 27: “Though my father and mother may forsake me, the Lord will receive me.” Jacob, being human, loved some, not others. God, not being human, loves each of us, and that is our greatest source of strength. God heeds those not heard. He loves those whom others do not love. Reuben, still a young man, did not yet know this. But we, reading his story and the rest of Tanach, do.

We are here for a reason, conceived in love, brought into being by the One who brought the universe into being, who knows our innermost thoughts, values our good intentions, and has more faith in us than we have in ourselves. That, if only we meditate on it, gives us the strength to turn intention into deed, lifting us from the person we might have been into the person we become.

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