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  • Writer's pictureRabbi Yonah Burr

Vayechi: Getting to the Root

ראובן בכרי אתה כחי וראשית אוני יתר שאת ויתר עז; פחז כמים אל תותר כי עלית משכבי אביך אז חללת יצועי עלה. 
Reuvain, you are my firstborn, my strength and my initial vigor, foremost in rank and foremost in power; water-like impetuosity- you cannot be foremost, because you mounted your father’s bed; then you desecrated Him Who ascended my couch.

Rashi explains this cryptic verse based on a medrash: When Rachel passed away, Yaakov removed his ‘bed’ or primary residence from Rachel’s tent, and established it in Bilhah’s tent, the maidservant of Rachel. Reuvain, seeing this, arose to the defense of his mother Leah; is it not enough that my mother suffered at the hands of Rachel, that she should now be ‘second’ to the maidservant of Rachel? He promptly took the initiative and established his father’s residence with his mother Leah. This breach of modesty, considering the level of Reuvain, was almost considered akin to an act of adultery, as well as a slight to the Divine Presence that resided over Yaakov’s residence.

The consequence of this act is what Yaakov is saying in our Parsha. ‘As the firstborn, you were designated for both the kehuna, and royalty, but through your impulsive act, you have lost these two privileges. 

Rav Elya Lapian zt”l asks, why was Reuvain punished so harshly for what seems to be an excusable error? Moreover, Reuvain repented! The medrash tells us that Reuvain spent years repenting and working on himself, to the point that he became the paradigm of teshuva; “Hashem said to Reuvain, you opened the doors of teshuva, by your life, you will merit a son who will bring the Jewish People to teshuva”. And indeed, the prophet Hoshea who declared שובה ישראל עד ד' אלקיך  was a descendant of Reuvain!

Rav Elya points out an amazing observation- Yaakov does not only mention the sin of Reuvain, but also identifies the ‘root cause’ of the sin; פחז כמים אל תותר  because you acted out of impetuosity, impulsively, that is the real cause of the loss. Perhaps the isolated incident can be forgiven, but the root of the sin, the impulsiveness, is still there. The losses of the kehuna and the royalty are consequences, rather than simple punishments. Someone who demonstrates this trait is not fit for these leadership roles.

Even on our level as well, it is important not only to identify our shortcomings, but to understand the root cause as well. Only then will we be able to properly work on ourselves, and be able to build.

May we all merit to learn the lessons of these incredible parshios, that serve as foundational ideas in our avodas Hashem! 

Have a wonderful Shabbos!

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