If Teshuva preceded the world, and our Torah is the blueprint for the universe, and all the actions of our Avos are a portent for their descendants — it would seem reasonable to assume that the instructions for this marvelous gift of repentance be apparent in the life and times of the Avos.
The Midrash asserts that Reuven the firstborn son of Yaakov Avinu introduced this notion of Teshuvah to the world. He is the sole individual who identified as a בעל תשובה — ‘master of Repentance’.
The ‘sin’ that Reuven repented for, that earned him this honorary title was his ‘tampering with his father’s bed’. After the death of Rachel, Yaakov established his primary residence in the tent of Bilhah, Rachel’s maidservant. Reuven considering it an affront to his mother on his own initiative removed and placed Yaakov’s bed in his mother Leah’s tent.
Although the Torah depicts this act as his ‘having lain with Bilhah’ the Talmud declares that anyone accusing Reuven of having sinned is clearly mistaken.
So despite never having actually ‘sinned’, nevertheless, Reuven’s contrition serves as the paradigm for all ‘repentance’.
On his deathbed, Yaakov admonishes Reuven, taking him to task for his פחז כמים — ‘water-like impetuosity’ that led to the desecration of his bed, more than for the ‘sin’ itself.
It seems clear that a full ‘return to G-d’ is not as much related to addressing the sin per se as it is in getting to the core of the cause.
Originally, Reuven was designated as the, בכור — Firstborn of Yaakov and privileged in accepting that position of honor as well as the role of מלך — King, and that of כהונה — Priesthood, serving in the Temple.
Yaakov relinquished those responsibilities and distributed them to Yosef as the B’chor, Yehuda as Melech, and Levi to serve in the Temple.
But didn’t Levi also err and was taken to task for his ‘accursed intense rage’ when he decimated the populace of Shechem for having ravaged his sister Dinah?
If Reuven indeed achieved repentance, so why then was he not restored to his former greatness? Doesn’t genuine Teshuva not only undo the damage but transform into merits?
Every sin is an act of impulsivity. We know better but cannot control ourselves.
What fuels impetuosness? The answer is emotion.
Passion is a powerful engine that drives us to act impulsively.
Anger is the overwhelming emotion that so often befuddles our thinking prodding us to act mindlessly.
So the bigger question is what stokes anger? The obvious answer is our ego. Everyone needs to be valued and feel important and purposeful. This is innate human need. But too often our notion of who we are is determined by who admires us and how we measure up to superficial measures of success.
When someone offends us, or when we feel unworthy, we get frustrated and try to grab for straws that will give us some sense of control and happiness. But that does not truly make us worthy, it is merely an artificial infusion of ‘self’ that wanes quickly.
Only someone who is true to themselves, recognizing one’s own talents and abilities striving to contribute to the world around us by fulfilling our unique role effectively and purposefully, will discover true happiness.
It must be framed of course in a higher set of eternal values that are the true determinant of what is considered real success.
Torah is the source of life. Our being is defined by our connection to Torah, in its reflection of G-d’s will. When we live with a sense that G-d is with me at any given moment, both in failure and success, and He loves and values those struggles and efforts towards coming closer to Him like no other can, and cherishes us, only then will we be equipped to ward off the ego’s attempts to stoke our inner fires.
Leah names her child ראובן — Reuven, because ראה — he saw my pain and blessed me with a child. She then adds, ‘for now my husband will love me’.
The simple understanding of this verse turns Reuven into a vehicle to warrant appreciation from her husband Yaakov, who she senses loves Rachel more than her.
Is that a healthy attitude for a child to grow up with? Doesn’t that convey a subtle message that my worth is determined by how others relate to me? If people love me does that indicate my true inner worth?
I believe that what Leah was teaching us is that in the false world of values, when one feels unworthy it leads to frustration and the need to try and win the affection of others to then feel valued.
She had an epiphany when she was blessed with a child. She felt G-d validating her worthiness to be the first to mother the future of the Jewish people. Leah realized that all one needs to see through the clouds of struggle is an affirmation that I serve a purpose independent of the adulation of others. It is in that selfless devotion, empty of ego, knowing I am a vehicle for the Honor of Heaven, that permits one to be free from any other source of worth.
She was no longer looking for greater affection from Yaakov. She was now able to sense his love, accepting it even if it was not as intense as his love for Rachel. She was no longer in need of anything else other than the awareness that she is worthy in G-d’s eyes.
Perhaps Reuven grew up not fathoming this message, misreading his mother’s naming him as a tool for affection, rather than understanding it as the key to her relationship to G-d, and to herself, that she rejoiced over, that permitted her to view the world objectively.
Until his impulsive reaction to right the wrong that was done to his mother’s honor, Reuven was fueled by the external measures of honor and dishonor, permitting his blinded perception to entitle him to assert himself and act accordingly.
The Talmud teaches that Reuven only later fulfilled the last step of teshuva, וידוי — confession, when he observed Yehuda publicly declare his complicity in the episode of Tamar, admitting that he was the one who fathered her child.
At that juncture he realized that our honor, i.e., ego, plays no role when fulfilling the will of G-d. If we do what is right by the Torah then we have truly found ourselves.
From that moment he began to comprehend that if we can shackle our ego, then we can remain calm, never resorting to impulsive anger that fuels our impetuousness, with all its consequences.
He was also called Reuven, the Midrash adds, because his name is a contraction of ראו בן, ‘see my son’, relating to his mother’s proud reflection of how different this firstborn is from the firstborn of her father-in-laws firstborn, Esav. Reuven not only happily relinquished his firstborn rights to Yosef, but he even sought to save his life, unlike Esav who sold it and sought to murder his brother Yaakov.
Only when he finally understood his dear mother’s profound lesson in the evolution of sin, did he understand that titles and honor do not define a person’s worth, it is one’s adherence to the will of G-d and the knowledge of how much G-d cherishes us for that. No wonder he didn’t blink when he relinquished his rights to others. He specifically never retrieved them so could show how happiness and success is measured in our relationship with G-d.
Yosef, the reflection of his father Yaakov, the epitome of אמת — truth, represents the mindfulness of G-d’s will as the sole factor of happiness with self.
Yehuda represents utter selflessness, true royalty, who is there solely for others.
Levi represents healthy passion, that he honed by rising to healthy reactivity to the Moshe’s call “Whoever is for Hashem, join me!’
We are summoned on Yom Kippur: ...לפני ד' תטהרו — before Hashem you shall be cleansed.
That is where it all starts. Before Hashem!
When that is the sole yardstick for all our actions and being, the path to Teshuva is ready to begin.
We must LeT go, of our little ego, to Live and Thrive!
גמר חתימה טובה,
צבי יהודה טייכמאן