THE ALSO RAN
Rabbi David Walk
This week's Torah reading exhibits a grand stage for the two leading actors of Jewish history to present their respective claims to the national scepter. Of course, those protagonists are Yosef and Yehudah. Yosef steps before the lights to present his dreams as exhibits A and B of God's bestowal of the crown upon him and his progeny. Then Yehudah is featured twice to present his case. First, he displays leadership (perhaps of a negative type) as he takes control in the sale of Yosef down to Egypt. Then, we are presented with the complex story of Yehudah and Tamar, his daughter in law. Again, we see Yehudah grab the reins of authority amidst a difficult situation and admit responsibility for the mess. So, we are presented with the beginnings of the competition for leadership of the Jewish people which extends throughout history. It begins this week but continues until a Messiah from the house of Yosef precedes the Messiah from the house of Yehudah (through, King David, of course). Therefore, you'd think that we should discuss that clash, but you'd be wrong. I noticed that Rabbi Jonathan Sacks instead of discussing these two standouts from amongst the brothers, instead, analyzed the loser in this race for power.
About a decade ago, he wrote a piece in his Covenant & Conversation series called 'The Tragedy of Reuben'. At first I assumed he was discussing the sandwich (in the category of 'Did You Know: DYK that 3/14 is Reuben Sandwich Day in Omaha, NE, no wonder Peyton called out 'Omaha!' all the time), but, alas, he was analyzing how Reuven gets bypassed for the leadership of the Israel clan. Even though my inspiration came from Rabbi Sacks, I plan to take my analysis in a different direction with a very different conclusion.
In three consecutive Torah readings, we see Reuven projecting himself as the leader of the burgeoning family, but each attempt fizzles badly. Last week, he behaves boorishly in the wake of the death of Ya'akov's beloved wife, Rachel. Perhaps to enhance his mother's role in the family, 'Reuven went and lay with Bilhah, his father's concubine (from Rachel), and Israel heard of it, and so, the sons of Jacob were twelve (Genesis 35:22). Avshalom, the rebellious son of King David, acted similarly to challenge his father's rule. However, there are others who claim that he didn't actually have relations. It may really mean that he moved Bilhah's bed out of Ya'akov's tent (see Rashi). Please, note the last phrase in the verse, that Ya'akov still had 12 sons. We'll return to that later. Next week we will read that Reuven saw the need for a return trip to Egypt for food during the seven-year famine. He approaches Ya'akov and tells him that they must bring Binyamin, last surviving son of Rachel, to Egypt. He vows to take responsibility for him, and if he fails to return Binyamin, Ya'akov has permission to kill Reuven's two children. Obviously Ya'akov finds this outrageous. Killing grandsons could never compensation for losing a son.
But it's in this week's reading that we really see his leadership attempt flare, only to be extinguished. The brothers are in Dotan, outside Shechem, and notice Yosef approaching. They decide to kill him, but Reuven is appalled and suggests, instead, throwing him into a pit. Yosef will still die but there will be no blood on their hands. Then Reuven disappears somehow and somewhere. Hamlet-like, the brooding prince goes off to contemplate something or go back to father (according to Rashi). During his absence, Yehudah convinces the brothers to sell Yosef to the passing caravan. We don't have time to assess the way the two brothers convince the others (there are critical differences, which show Yehudah's superior knowledge of his brothers and psychology), but suffice it to say that when they sell Yosef the verse (27) reports that they 'hearkened' to Yehudah, no such confidence is ever shown to Reuven. Reuven seems to have a plan to return Yosef unscathed to their father, but he couldn't pull it off, and the brothers listen to Yehudah.
In Chronicles I (5:1-2) we're informed that Reuven is the first born, but leadership (the crown) goes to Yehudah and the birthright (double inheritance, the two tribes of Ephraim and Menashe) goes to Yosef. It takes both brothers to take the primacy from Reuven. He lost the birthright over the incident with Bilhah, and the leadership role, I believe, at the scene of the pit. This reality is, sort of, reported in the blessings of Ya'akov on his death bed. Before his death, Moshe generally reiterates the blessings of Ya'akov's to the brothers. This time to the tribes. To Reuven's tribe Moshe declares: May Reuven live and not die, and may his people be counted in the number (Deuteronomy 33:2). What?! Ya'akov's blessing excluded Reuven, while Moshe's includes him. This is one of only two blessings in which Moshe seemingly disagrees with Ya'akov. But this fits in with the verse when Reuven sinned with Bilhah. After the sin, the verse announces that there are still 12 tribes. Reuven, through indiscretion lost his primacy but not his membership. In the premodern world deposed or usurped leaders were eliminated, but Judaism fought that tendency.
Rabbi Sacks ends his piece on Reuven lamenting that he lost 'his chance of changing history' and his place in society, but adds that God loves us and values our good intentions. I would add another immensely important factor. Reuven is not rejected by the nation. He and his tribe remain a member in good standing of the Jewish nation. They play noteworthy, albeit supporting, parts in many future events. Rabbi Sacks' point is to keep a stiff upper lip, because God still loves you. That's fine, but I think that the point is much stronger. Moshe and Jewish history are informing us of a great truth, understood by Menashe when he relinquishes leadership to his younger brother, Ephraim: You don't have to be Number One to be significant. Jewish destiny is a team sport, which requires all the team members to make substantial sacrifices and contributions. Reuven isn't the captain, but he makes a difference.