Every once in a while a strikingly semantic connection and allusion helps us to understand how the Bible is truly a magnificently seamless unity, in which a proper reading of a passage in one of the biblical books sheds brilliant light on a heretofore hidden meaning in another one of the biblical books. An example of this may be found in the beginning of our Torah portion.
Ki Tetzeh opens with war and the possibility of an Israelite soldier marrying a captive war bride. He is forbidden to do so, however, until he first brings her home, observes her in her most unattractive state as she mourns her family for a full thirty days – shaven head, long fingernails – and, if at the end of that period his ardor has not flagged, he may have her converted and marry her.
We next read of a man with two wives, a loved one and a hated one; if the eldest son is the son of the hated wife, the father is forbidden to favor the younger son of the beloved wife and bequeath the double portion to him rather than to his firstborn.
The third section concerns the rebellious son, a glutton and a drunkard, so disobedient to his mother and father that they are required to bring him to the High Court, where he could be condemned to death.
Rashi, citing the Midrash, weaves a profound, psychologically oriented narrative thread connecting these seemingly disparate rulings:
The Torah is making a concession because of man’s evil inclination, for had God not permitted the [gentile war bride] he would have married her nonetheless. However, if he does marry her, in the end he will come to hate her. He will rue the day that he gave up his family and traditions because of her, the excitement he had previously felt would turn to resentment as the Torah writes immediately afterwards: “If a man has two wives, one beloved and another hated,” and ultimately he will parent a rebellious son by her. It is for this reason that these sections are put in juxtaposition. (Rashi, Deut. 21:11)
Three stages: first, overwhelming attraction to an inappropriate woman for the wrong reasons, and then, after the heat of lust turns into a dying ember, you end up hating her and hating the child born of that union. The hapless and despised child, cheated out of his rightful birthright through no fault of his own, will then assume the despicable characteristics of the rebellious son. In effect, Rashi connects these three laws by presenting the dynamics which form a dysfunctional family, leading to criminal behavior on the part of the offspring.
And it seems to me that in addition to the psychological underpinnings of the sequence of the incidents, this biblical passage also resonates with seminal occurrences in the life of our patriarch Jacob back in the book of Genesis, and sheds important light on the tensions and mishaps which shaped our patriarchal forbears and their children. Let us first review the precise words of the second ruling in Ki Tetzeh:
If a person has two wives, one beloved and one hated, and both the beloved and hated wives have sons, but the firstborn is that of the hated one, then it shall be when he makes his sons inherit his property, he may not declare the son of the beloved the firstborn before the son of the hated, who is the firstborn, by giving him a double portion of all that he has, for he is the first; the right of the firstborn is his. (Deut. 21:15–17)
Now didn’t Jacob have two wives? And didn’t he love one of them and hate the other, with the Torah itself testifying that Leah felt “hated” (Gen. 29:31)? And didn’t he bequeath to Joseph, the son of the beloved wife, Rachel, a double portion, while overlooking the inheritance due to his first-born, Reuven, the son of the hated wife?
Generally speaking, and most justifiably, the story of Jacob and Rachel is viewed by the world as one of the most magnificent love stories in literature. His very first meeting with Rachel is an expression of love at first sight, when this unlikely scholar and tent-dweller exhibits superhuman strength by dramatically and single-handedly rolling away the heavy stone covering the well where Rachel had arrived to water her father’s flocks. And the seven years of work that Laban asks from Jacob in return for his daughter’s hand pass “like a few days” for this man in love. But he is tricked into a marriage with “the other sister, Leah,” a woman he married under false pretenses, and who is therefore an inappropriate mate for him. The Bible – and especially the Midrash – helps us to see the terrible tragedy suffered by Leah, which was not unlike what could be in store for the hapless captive woman. After her marriage, “God saw that Leah was hated (senu’a) and He opened her womb” (Gen. 29:31). The word “senu’a” that appears in Genesis is repeated in our portion which speaks of the eldest son of the hated (senu’a) wife. (A wife who is cast aside in favor of another woman always feels herself to be hated if she doesn’t feel really beloved.) The Torah goes on to describe the birth: “And Leah conceived and bore a son; she called his name Reuven [literally, behold, a son] because she said, ‘God has seen into my affliction (be’onyi), for now my husband will love me’” (Gen. 29:32). But alas, Jacob never grew to love Leah, who suffered silently throughtout her marriage
And remember the third incident in our Torah reading. An inappropriate marriage will lead to a cheated, “hated” son, who will express his resentment by becoming rebellious. Reuven sins with his father’s concubine Bilha. To be sure, our sages modified the harsh literal meaning of the biblical text in describing the nature of that sin. “And it came to pass…that Reuven went and lay with Bilha, his father’s concubine” (Gen. 35:22). Our oral tradition insists that Reuven did not actually sleep with Bilha, but – when, after the death of Rachel, Jacob moved his couch into Bilha’s tent – Reuven switched his father’s couch into Leah’s tent in order to save his mother from another act of brazen humiliation. “If my mother’s sister was a rival to my mother, shall the bondmaid of my mother’s sister be a rival to my mother?” cried out Reuven, according to the Midrash. “Thereupon he [Reuven] rose and transposed his couch” (Shabbat 55b). But however we understand the situation, Reuven rebelled against his father Jacob!
Perhaps Jacob understands the positive motivation behind Reuven’s rebellious action – that in this perverse way of taking his father’s concubine he was crying out to become his father’s true heir and continuation, and thus recognizes his own guilt in having rejected his biblical firstborn. After all, despite the egregious sin, the Torah records that “Jacob heard” of the mishap, does not comment, but then our Masoretic tradition leaves an empty space, which apparently hints at Jacob’s rage, guilt, and perhaps tears – as well as his ultimate decision to remain silent. Finally, the story concludes “And the children of Jacob were twelve” (Gen. 35:23). Reuven is not rejected by his father. He is forgiven – and talmudic law ordains that “if the parents of a rebellious son forgive him, he is forgiven” (Sanhedrin 88a).
Apparently, the Torah recognizes the complexity of relationships of individuals caught in circumstances beyond their control – and the familial suffering which often results. Jacob was Laban’s victim, as were Leah and Rachel. Reuven suffers the fallout brought about by the situation of a long-barren favored wife who suffers an untimely death.
And it is even more complex than this. Following the incident of Reuven’s sinful act, Jacob finally is able to return to his father’s house, to Isaac, “in peace” (Gen. 23:21). Jacob absented himself from his father for more than two decades – and then wanders about in Shekhem even after he leaves Laban – at least partially because he felt guilt-ridden about his having deceived the patriarch in order to receive the paternal blessings. But now he has the courage to confront his father. He now can legitimately expect that just as he forgave Reuven his transgression because Reuven had wrongly been treated as the “hated” son, so Isaac would forgive him – Jacob – because Jacob, too, had been rejected by Isaac as the “hated” or, at least, rejected son.
Hence the legal material in our portion resonates with the previously recounted tragedy of Jacob’s family – and attempts to legislate a lifestyle intended to prevent such future occurrences. Our Bible is a magnificent unity from Genesis to Deuteronomy of connections, reverberations and repair between the generations.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin
Chancellor Ohr Torah Stone
Chief Rabbi – Efrat Israel