It’s easy to fall into the trap of misjudging Reuven, Yaakov’s eldest son who
was faulted with interfering with his father’s marital affairs. Our sages explain
that after Rachel died, Yaakov put his bed in Bilhah’s tent. Considering this an
affront to his mother, Reuven brought it back to her tent. In doing so, the Torah
writes that he consorted with Bilhah, because, as the sages teach “this was a sin
so grave it was akin to incest”. But the sages write in very clear terms in the
Talmud (Shabbat 55b) "whoever claims that Reuven sinned is simply mistaken".
As a consequence, the Midrash explains that Reuven lost the priesthood to
Levi, the Kingship to Yehuda and the firstborn rights to Yosef (who had a double
portion with his 2 sons, Menashe and Efraim). At first sight it seems like Reuven
had lost everything, and he was now barely on par with any of his brothers.
However, it’s a known principle that the Torah and the sages never write
anything superfluous and to be understood on the most simplistic terms. The
simple meaning can often be deceiving, as the Torah itself seemingly exaggerates
Reuven’s sin, and insufficient to have a good grasp of what is really going on.
The Dudaim of Reuven
Out of all possible symbols for the flag of Reuven’s Tribe, the Dudaim (a
plant species, possibly mandrake) was chosen to represent it. This seems very
odd, because the only reference we have of it before is when he goes out into the
field to pick it up for his mother, Leah.
The Dudaim was known to have fertility properties and apparently was rare
to find. Rachel saw him bringing the plant and asked it in exchange of being
together with Yaakov that night. Because of that, she was able to conceive, but at
the same time was punished for exchange her privilege to be with him, by not
being buried in Mearat HaMachpelah. As a side note, as a result of this union,
which happened on the Eve of Shavuot, Yissachar was born to Leah, to Reuven’s
We also find that when Yaakov was on his deathbed, he introduced his
blessing to Reuven by saying “Reuven, you are my firstborn, my strength and my
initial vigor, foremost in rank and foremost in power”. He also added “he found
Dudaim in the fields”.
It’s known in Kabbalah that, in every endeavor, there’s an initial burst of
energy. This can apply to a new business, a new study and pretty much everything
else, including the conception of a child, in particular, the firstborn. This is why
the firstborn is granted 2 portions out of all of the parents’ properties. Reuven
had this power, which he tried his best to direct to good. He was not afraid of
using it, by confronting his brothers in order to save Yosef, or move his father’s
bed to protect his mother Leah’s honor.
This initial burst of energy, also associated with Chokhmah was,
unfortunately misused, but nevertheless Reuven didn’t get demoted from the
Tribes as his name was still present in the Choshen Mishpat (Priestly’s
Secrets from Reuven
Reuven was the firstborn, and many Kabbalistic secrets are associated with
this title. The Zohar compares the firstborn to the first fruits of a tree and a field
that must be consecrated to Hashem. Rebbe Nachman brings in many places and
particularly in Likutey Moharan that the word itself for first in Hebrew is Rishon,
and is associated with Bereshit (the first word from the Torah) since they share
the same root and Wisdom (“Chokhmah”) since the verse in Proverbs say “Reishit
Chokhmah Yir’at Hashem”, meaning, the beginning of Wisdom is the fear of God.
The Zohar II (Terumah 168a) teaches us that “He [Reuven] would have received
the firstborn rights of Cain , the firstborn of Adam, had it not been for the episode
The root of this sin goes much further back in history. The Arizal teaches us
in Gates of Reincarnations (Sha’ar HaGilgulim 33:1b) that the spark of Cain came
back to start its rectification in Reuven. The Midrash tells us that Cain and Hevel
were born with sisters whom they married, Cain with two and Hevel with three.
Reasoning he was firstborn, part of Cain’s contention was that he should be the
one having an extra spouse. Both he and Reuven were firstborn and fought with
their inclination to maneuver this incredible power.
The Aramaic translation of the Torah made by Onkelus also has incredible
secrets and sheds light in many passages. It’s written that Yaakov’s blessing to
Reuven contained the rare word Se’et (foremost in rank) which is alluded to Cain
as well. Before he sinned by murdering his brother Hevel, Hashem warned him “If
you do well, you will be se’et”, meaning, you will be uplifted to priesthood.
Reuven then opened up a channel of firstborn energy to the world.
Conceiving a Holy soul
Another important lesson from Reuven’s life was the fact that his Tribe,
together with Gad’ and half of Menashe’s, were left out of Israel. As the Children
of Israel were approaching the Land after 40 years, these men gathered to
respectfully ask Moshe Rabbenu to settle on the east of the Jordan River. Moshe
took it as an affront and insult to the Land, which had been countless times
promised to the Jewish People. He severely reminded them of the sin of the spies
and cautioned them against moving further with their request.
What could propel these tribes to such a thing?
The Arizal gives a fascinating explanation in Likutey Torah. He writes that
what made these Tribes fault was the fact they were conceived with a minor flaw
in Yaakov’s mind. Reuven was conceived when Lavan exchanged Rachel for Leah
on their wedding night. Gad was conceived when Rachel took Bilhah to consort
with Yaakov without his knowing (contrary to Leah who told him to take Zilpah).
The part of half of Menashe comes from the opinion that Osnat was actually
daughter of Dina, who married Yosef. When Shekhem, son of Chamor, violated
her, he injected Tumah (impurity) in the future daughter to be born, Osnat. Osnat
was not conceived in holiness, but Yosef, who later married her, was. The result of
this union produced Menashe, having the half belonging to Osnat’s consciousness
being kept out of the Land of Israel and the other half, from Yosef’s consciousness
May we draw inspiration from Reuven and properly direct our bursts of
energy towards great things!