Editor’s Note: As I have been preparing this biblical story for web-posting from Marc Gafni’s teachings in his book, Certainty, I have been stunned and deeply moved to find so much of my personal story in the tale of Jacob, Leah, Judah and Reuben. I want to particularly recommend that if your family biography included an insecure attachment with your mother, and an undermined sense of self emerging from your childhood, go back to the first post of this series on February 21, The Judah Moment, and begin the story there. It is a perfect description of Attachment Theory that is more than 2000 years old. – SR
Leah experiences the existential-religious moment of feeling safe in God’s hands, of being loved by God, with her newborn baby in her arms. The unconditional love Leah is able to impart to the baby Judah provides him with a sense of certainty about himself, his value, and his place in the world. This sense of core certainty is the greatest gift that a parent can give a child, because it prepares the child to live and operate in a radically uncertain world. This love is the basis of the Judah Moment.
The Judah Moment is the acknowledgment of core certainty of being and its application. Leah does not only understand her own core certainty of being, she is also able to pass this certainty on to her child Judah. In this sense the Judah Moment can be seen as both the formative breakthrough moment and its reverberations. To fully unpack this idea further we need only draw a brief comparison between the lives of Judah and Leah’s first son, Reuben. Parents often find that their children incarnate, in sometimes exaggerated form, both their splendor and their pathologies. Such is the case with Leah and her children Reuben and Judah.
As the firstborn of Jacob and Leah, Reuben would traditionally inherit leadership of the tribe. Instead, Reuben loses himself and his birthright in the mire of his own confusion. Jacob finally describes him as unstable and awards the leadership to Judah. What happened to Reuben, and why? Two key incidents in Reuben’s life will illustrate his confusion of direction and his inability to match his good intentions with appropriate actions.
In Genesis 37 the brothers see Joseph coming from afar and plot to murder him. Reuben suggests to his brothers a different course of action, with the text making his intentions very clear: “’Shed no blood! Cast him into that pit out in the wilderness, but do not touch him yourselves’ – intending to save him from them and restore him to his father.” Reuben succeeds in convincing his brothers not to kill Joseph, planning to rescue him later. But while the brothers sit down to eat, Reuben seems to disappear, returning only after the brothers have already sold Joseph into slavery. The pressing textual issue – Where did Reuben go?
The Midrash suggests that, after convincing his brothers not to kill Joseph, Reuben went to pray and to fast for an earlier sin. Instead of finishing the job and actually bringing Joseph out of the pit, his mind flitted to a different, less pressing matter. What is the earlier sin that in the Midrashic reading distracts Reuben from following through on his intention to save Joseph? When Rachel died, Rueben had hoped that now his father Jacob would finally honor and love his mother Leah. He waits expectantly for his father to move his bed into the tent of his mother Leah. As is often the case, in the intimate complexity of family dynamics, Reuben has internalized his mother’s neediness. He has absorbed her experience of dependency on Jacob. Jacob however, upon Rachel’s death, moves his bed into the tent of Rachel’s maidservant Bilhah. Leah’s reaction to this ultimate degradation is not recorded in the text. Her son Reuben however explodes in rage.
To understand the intensity of his reaction we need only remember that his primal experience of himself, from the moment of his birth, is as a means to win Jacob for his mother Leah. The name his mother gave him, translated from the Hebrew “see that I have a son,” is explained by the verse as welling out of her neediness for Jacob. She thinks that her son will be her bridge into her husband’s heart. This becomes Reuben’s internal raison de etre even if he never thinks of himself consciously in precisely those terms. When Jacob moves his bed to Bilhah’s tent, preferring even the maidservant of Rachel over his mother Leah, Reuben according to an ambiguous biblical passage – “confuses the bed of his father”. One understanding- his primal rage explodes through his having sexual relations – presumably nonconsensual relations – with Bilhah, his fathers wife. He rapes —psychodramatically or literally- his father’s wife. A second reading – no less provocative in the ancient near east is that he bursts in to his father’s bedchamber and moves his father’s bed into his mother Leah’s tent.
According to the midrashic reading, Reuben – after moving to save Joseph by convincing his brothers to let him die in a pit instead of killing him themselves- gets somehow distracted by the memory of the sin of ‘confusing his fathers bed’. Instead of returning to the pit to extricate Joseph as he has originally intended, he suddenly decides to undertake a fast of penance to repent the sin of violating his father’s bed. By the time he returns to the pit Joseph has been sold to Egypt. The Midrash is suggesting a core lack of focus – of confusion in Reuben’s personality. The source of the confusion according to the subtly implied midrashic suggestion is Reuben’s essential lack of self. The deepest circuitry of his soul is wired in a way that his primal sense of self is that of an instrument in the winning of Jacob for his mother. Rachel is then the ultimate spoiler of his self- fulfillment.
In this context his primal rage is not surprising. Rage of such power and violence only explodes when the false self we have internalized to obscure our essential sense of inadequacy, is threatened. Our authentic self is by definition never so vulnerable to external undermining. It is thus not at all surprising that his internal dynamic subconsciously prevents him from saving Joseph. Joseph after all is the son of Rachel. Joseph perpetuates in the second generation — through his father’s overt favoring of him over the sons of Leah — Jacob’s favoring of Rachel at the expense of Leah.
In practical terms, his behavior reflects a deep inner confusion, expressing itself in an inability to focus; at worst, a near-fatal lack of responsibility. His confusion is essential, for Reuben lacks the interiority of personhood. It seems that Reuben is unable to value his own intuitions, unable or at some level unwilling to bring about that which he knows would bring him deepest satisfaction – sippuk. He wants to save Joseph, and yet he does not.
Reuben’s inability to reach sippuk has its roots in a lack of inner certainty about his own value and worth. And this safek, this distance from himself, must be linked to the primal distance, which separated him from both his mother and his father. As we have seen, the child Reuben is a tragic figure, trapped in the mire of his mother’s non-relationship with his father. Not only is Leah dry of the unconditional love needed to nourish her son’s core certainty and personality, but also Jacob is unable to offer a sense of comfort or certainty to his son. For Reuben himself was born from that fateful night of false certainty – born of a union in which the father actually thought he was with a different woman.
On Jacob’s first wedding night he thought he was in the arms of his beloved Rachel when in fact he was with Leah. According to one reading of the text Reuben was conceived of this union. While the Talmud encourages an enormously broad range of sexual expression in marriage this kind of union is disallowed. One cannot be with one woman while thinking about another. It degrades the sexual act from an expression of ‘I-Thou’- a merging of two people and their dreams, to ‘I-it’ – one person using another in an act of unredeemed passion.
A Bit of My Personal Story
Parents spend their entire lives saving so that their child can go to the best college or university, whilst in our heart of hearts we know that by the time our babies reach 18, it almost doesn’t matter where they study. They may get a slightly better job, or a slightly better insurance policy. They may even make a little bit more money. But ultimately, in forming the core psychological personality of the child, we know that college is nearly irrelevant. High school is important, grade school more so. Pre-school, of infinite value. The first year of life: critical. The early childhood years form the personality with which the child begins life, and from which the child needs to emerge and to grow.
I am reminded of my own early childhood. My Polish parents barely survived Hitler’s Europe. My mother’s significant other was always Hitler. You would think he lived next door. My basic goal growing up was to make it worthwhile for her to have survived its terror. When we were good she told us, “It was worth surviving.” When we were ‘bad’ she told us, at high decibels levels, that we were not worth surviving for. We existed for her only as pawns in her continuing war on Nazi Germany. In some mysterious way, which only a child of the kingdom of the night can understand, my mistakes counted as points against her in her ongoing battle to survive Hitler. My point is not to take my mother to task. God Forbid. She is a fabulous woman and I am proud that she is my mother. And yet, growing up in this way, I lacked the certainty that I was good, valuable or in any way enough in the world. I felt empty. Some people try and cover up the emptiness by marrying Jacob in the darkness, by stealing the husband of a friend or a sister; others become Rabbis, or depend on some other title before their name in order to cover up the same emptiness. If I don’t believe that I am enough then I will make believe that I am by dressing up in names or relationships that aren’t truly mine.
Thus the journey of my life has been about coming to know that I matter; that I am special, above and beyond what I do or accomplish in the world. To know that this is true is to be able to receive God’s love – or anyone’s love for that matter. I can only receive love if I believe that I am lovable. It took me till my early thirties to understand that this is so. At that time I stopped lecturing on the classic Jewish theological issues and began teaching classes on topics like laughter, tears, loneliness and uncertainty. It was only after I experienced the core certainty that I was loved by God that I felt ready to teach from my heart and be a spiritual guide instead of a good lecturer. It was only around that time that people began to look to me for guidance and not only for information.
In the next post, we will return to the story of Reuben, and the early wounding of his sense of self that led to his core uncertainty, which then led to so many other less than happy choices in his life.