As Yaakov makes his way back to the land of Cannan, several events –
spanning the full range of emotions – transpire in rapid succession.
The sequence (Bereshis 35:16-29) as Yaakov and Rochel are blessed with the
birth of Binyamin. Rochel died during the childbirth of Binyamin and was
buried in Beis Lechem. Shortly thereafter, Reuvain committed a significant
misdeed by interfering in the affairs of his father when he moved the bed
of Yaakov from the tent of Bilhah to his mother Leah’s tent. Finally,
Yaakov arrived home to the land of Cannan where he was reunited with his
aged father Yitzchak.
Many meforshim (commentaries) seek to shed light on the logical thread
that ties these events together. Additionally, they address the fact that
the Torah seems to interject a census of the twelve sons of Yaakov in the
midst of these pesukim without an obvious reason.
Rashi creates a sequential chain that pulls these seemingly disparate
facts in a coherent progression. The joyous birth of Binyamin brought
about the tragic death of Rochel and her burial. After Rochel’s demise,
Yaakov moved his bed and possessions from Rochel’s tent to Bilhah’s.
Reuvain felt that as the firstborn, it was his place to defend the honor
of his mother Leah. As Rashi explains, Reuvain felt his mother Leah would
be offended at the notion of having Bilhah assuming the role of ‘akeres
habayis’ (the primary wife) at this point. Thus, Reuvain took matters into
his own hands and moved his father’s belongings. Once this incident was
recorded, the Torah reverts to the fact that after Binyomin’s birth,
Yaakov’s twelve shevatim (tribes) were now complete and listed their
names. Finally, Yaakov’s arrival at the home of his father is noted.
Shedding Light on the Actions of Reuvain
Rashi offers a second explanation for the interjection of the listing of
the twelve sons of Yaakov in the midst of this sequence. Quoting a Gemorah
(Shabbos 55b), Rashi points out that even immediately after the actions of
Reuvain, he was listed with the other sons – even with the respectful
title of firstborn (Bereshis 35:23) – to lend significance to the fact
that he remained a tzadik (righteous person). In fact that gemorah notes
that Reuvain did not sin at all.
The Ramban takes this defense of Reuvain two steps further by pointing out
that the Torah specifically mentions that Yaakov immediately heard about
the actions of his firstborn (Vayishma Yaakov, 35:22) to inform us that he
did not punish him at that time. Additionally the Ramban maintains that
the Torah lists these two themes in one pasuk – even through these is an
unusual space in midst of this pasuk – to show that Yaakov accepted
Reuvain even after this act.
Why, Then, the Punishment?
After this rousing defense of Reuvain, Yaakov’s actions in the twilight of
his life, as recorded in Parshas Vayechi, require explanation. As he
blessed his children, Yaakov admonished Reuvain for his impulsive actions,
and took from his firstborn’s rights to kehunah (priesthood) and malchus
(royalty), which were given to Levi and Yehudah respectively. (See Rashi,
others, for the reasons that Yaakov delayed his response until close to
If Reuvain had not sinned, why, then, was he punished so severely? And if
he was listed as the firstborn immediately after his misdeed, why did he
lose those privileges later on?
The Responsibility of Leadership
I would life to suggest that Yaakov was not ‘punishing’ Reuvain by any
means. Yaakov still considered Reuvain to be his firstborn and began the
birshas Yaakov by noting ‘Reuvain bechori ata (you are my firstborn,
Losing the leadership role, however, was inevitable once Reuvain had
demonstrated that he acted impulsively – without proper reflection. If an
individual responds impulsively to situations that arise, he or she may be
subjecting him or herself to the consequences of poor decisions. However,
as a leader, this type of impulsive actions can be nothing short of
disastrous. A true leader must always be reflective and measured in his or
Leadership of any kind – in one’s class, school, peer group, or any other
social structure – is an honor and privilege. It is also a significant
responsibility, one that is best exercised with restraint and reflection.
Rabbi Horowitz is the founder and dean of Yeshiva Darchei Noam in Monsey, NY, as well as the founder and Program Director of Agudath Israel's Project Y.E.S. (Youth Enrichment Services), which helps at-risk teens and their parents. He is a popular lecturer on teaching and parenting topics in communities around the world, and is the author of several best-selling parenting tape and CD sets. For more information on Rabbi Horowitz's parenting tapes, visit http://www.rabbihorowitz.com/ or call 845-352-7100 X 133.