Sedra Shorts

Ideas and commentaries on the weekly Torah readings.

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Location: Bet Shemesh, Israel

I taught Tanach in Immanuel College, London and in Hartman, Jerusalem. I was also an ATID fellow for 2 years. At present, I work for the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education in the Diaspora, in Bar-Ilan University, Israel. The purpose of this blog is to provide "sedra-shorts", short interesting ideas on the weekly Torah reading. Please feel free to use them and to send me your comments.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Parshat VaYishlach

Reuven and Bilha

Upon his return to Canaan, Yaakov managed ward off all his threats, to successfully settle in Canaan and to pay his dues to God.

He had paid off Esav (Bereshit 33:11), bought a field near Shechem (ibid 19), “the fear of God was upon the cities that were around them, so that they did not pursue Yaakov's sons” (ibid 35:5) after the incident with Dina, and Yaakov built an altar in Bet El (ibid 6-7), keeping the promise he had made to God over 21 years earlier when he had fled (ibid 28:20-22).

However out of the blue, we have strange, barely reported incident: “It came to pass when Israel sojourned in that land, that Reuven went and lay with Bilhah, his father's concubine, and Israel heard…(ibid 35:22).

What is going on here? What is Reuven trying to do? Is he merely succumbing to his lust like Shechem did with Dina and Amnon with Tamar, or is there something greater going on?

In order to answer this question we have to examine similar incidents of people taking the concubines of others.

Avner and Ishboshet

After Sha’ul’s death there was a civil war between Yehuda, led by David, and the rest of Israel, led by Ishboshet, Sha’ul’s only surviving son. Ishboshet was a weak man. The real power lay with his general, Avner ben Ner. Avner decided to take Sha’ul’s concubine, Rizpa.

Ishboshet challenged him saying: “Why have you gone unto my father's concubine?' Avner was furious over Ishboshet’s words” and threatened to defect to David, thereby handing over the kingdom to David. Ishboshet “could not answer Avner another word, because he feared him (II Shmuel 3:6-11).

Avshalom and David

After having forced David, his father, to flee Jerusalem, Avshalom seeks Achitophel’s advice on how to secure the kingdom. Achitophel responds: “'Go unto your father's concubines… the hands of all your supporters will be strong.' So they pitched a tent for Avshalom on the roof of the house; and Absalom went unto his father's concubines in the sight of all Israel (ibid 16:21-22).

Adoniya and Shlomo

Shlomo had previously spared the life of his half-brother, Adoniya, when he had crowned himself king. However, he warned him that should he attempt to usurp him, he would execute him.

Some time later Adoniya approached Batsheva, the Queen Mother. He asked her if she would ask Shlomo “for a small thing”; if he could give Avishag the Shunamite, David’s companion in his final years, to him as a wife. Shlomo responds angrily to Batsheva saying that is not a small request. She might as well “ask for him the throne” (I Melachim 2:22). Shlomo subsequently orders Adoniya’s execution.

From all these sources it is clear that taking a person’s concubines is tantamount to declaring oneself their successor. Avner was positioning himself as the real successor to Sha’ul, Avshalom was declaring himself as David’s successor and Adoniya was trying to assert himself as the true heir to David’s throne.

So too, Re’uven. He had already seen how two younger brothers, Shimon and Levi, had seized the initiative regarding Shechem. He is also aware of the impending challenge of Yoseph, the oldest of Yaakov’s favorite wife, and he knows that both Yishmael and Esav were overlooked in favor of the younger brother. He tries a desperate act in order to establish his rights over the brothers. He takes Bilha, his father’s concubine.

However, it was this act that actually cost him the leadership: “The sons of Reuven the first-born of Israel, for he was the first-born; but, forasmuch as he defiled his father's couch, his birthright was given unto the sons of Joseph the son of Israel…” (I Divrei Hayamim 5:1).

Last year's Sedra Short on Parshat VaYishlah entitled: "Struggling with the Present", appears at


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