VAYISHLACH (Genesis, 32:4-36:43) — “The Inferior Decorator”, or, “Stay Out Of My Bedroom!”

Reuben was not happy with his parents’ furniture arrangements. So he took it upon himself to do some rearranging. He was rewarded for his interior decorating by forfeiting his birthright.

What happened?

Reuben was upset. For years he had tolerated seeing his mother as the “second wife” of his father. After all, Jacob had planned to marry only Rachel, and was tricked into marrying Leah first. A week later, Jacob married Rachel. Rachel was clearly the favorite.

(It is important to point out that Leah was not ignored. She too, was treated with love and honor by her husband. She eventually bore Jacob six sons and at least one daughter. Rachel, however, was the preferred wife.)

Rachel died. Now, thought Reuben, his mother could take her place as Jacob’s “leading lady.” But, it was not to be.

Rachel and Leah were not Jacob’s only wives. When Leah married Jacob, her father gave her his maidservant Zilpah to attend to her needs. When Rachel married Jacob the following week, she too received a maidservant. Her name was Bilhah. Bilhah and Zilpah both became wives of Jacob, each one bearing him two sons. (Rashi mentions that Bilhah and Zilpah were also daughters of Laban, born to a maidservant – He treated his own flesh and blood like slaves. Nice guy!)

Reuben now expected his father to move into Leah’s tent. To his shock, Jacob added insult to injury by moving in with Bilhah, Rachel’s maid!!

To Reuben, such action was unacceptable. He would not stand by silently and watch his mother play second fiddle to her sister’s maid! He removed his father’s bed from Bilhah’s tent, and placed it in Leah’s tent, where it belonged!

Jacob was furious. How dare Reuben involve himself in his father’s personal life! It was none of his business! (This was not the first time Reuben had tried to “play matchmaker” – see Genesis 30:14-17) Jacob never forgot Reuben’s actions. Even as Jacob blessed his sons on his deathbed, he reprimanded his firstborn for being “unstable as water…You profaned my couch!” (Ibid, 49:4)

As a result of Reuben’s impetuous behavior, he was stripped of the various functions of his Firstborn status – Joseph received the Firstborn’s double inheritance, Levi became the Priest, and Judah became the king.

Reuben regretted his actions.  He repented. Although he lost his leadership role in Israel, he remained the founder of a Tribe of Israel. As the Torah tells us immediately following this episode …the sons of Jacob were twelve. (Ibid, 35:23) In the same sentence where the Torah tells us about Reuben’s sin, it tells us that Jacob still had twelve sons. Reuben, in spite of what he did, was not expelled from the Tribes of Israel. (Contrast Reuben’s situation with that of his Uncle Esau, and his Great-Uncle Ishmael, who were excluded from the Nation of Israel.)

Wait a minute! What did Reuben do that was so terrible? All he wanted was for his mother to get more attention from his father.  Is that a crime?  Is that a sin?!

Reuben was dedicated to his mother. But that dedication was overplayed when he meddled into his parents’ intimate relationships. (We should keep in mind that the dynamics of polygamy don’t make a great deal of sense to those of us who are not used to it. That’s one of the reasons Ashkenazic Jewry banned it over a thousand years ago.  (See “How to Say ‘You’re Wrong’”.)

Yes, Leah was Jacob’s wife and the mother of his children. So was Bilhah! For that matter, so was Zilpah! If everyone had acted like Reuben, the ten sons of Leah, Bilhah, and Zilpah would have been having a tug-of-war, moving their father’s bed from tent to tent!

Not everything that goes on in one’s personal life needs to be a matter of public discussion. Jacob was a prophet, a holy man. There was nothing that Jacob did that wasn’t for a very good reason. Reuben saw something he didn’t like, and decided he had to fix it. He should have left it alone.

Jacob reacted angrily to Reuben’s actions. The Torah itself responds even more harshly. In describing what Reuben did, the Torah writes: …vayishkav es Bilhah pilegesh aviv… In Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s “Living Torah,” he translates this phrase to mean that Reuben …disturbed the sleeping arrangements of Bilhah, his father’s concubine… 

Rabbi Kaplan’s translation accurately reports what Reuben did. However, a painfully literal reading of the text gives us an additional insight. The actual translation implies that Reuben had committed adultery with his father’s wife!

When one intercedes in the intimate details of another person’s life, in a sense, that person is violated. Reuben was not happy with the relationship between Jacob and Bilhah. He stepped in. It was not his business. He violated a sacred relationship by intervening and suggesting alterations.

No, it wasn’t adultery. But, in a sense, it was close. He passed judgment on his father’s personal life. It was repulsive. It was wrong.


How many times do we open the newspaper and close it just as quickly, so as not to expose our children to the raunchy headlines? Why is it that the more trash a tabloid can print about a famous person’s life, the more papers sell? Who cares? What’s it OUR business if…?

Where is society’s shame? Where is our sense of what’s private and what’s public? Why can’t I pay for a quart of milk at the checkout counter without reading about every dysfunctional actor, politician, and athlete? Why can’t I open my email without being bombarded with trash of the worst kind? Today we vote on issues, the discussion of which, as a child, might have earned me a bar of soap in the mouth!

In my former, pre-no-TV days, I grew up with the likes of Dennis, Beaver, and Bullwinkle. Television today is an absolute sewer. (To be kind.) I really don’t understand how parents, religious or otherwise, can allow their children unfettered and unsupervised access to the television. What is available to today’s TV audience makes the Reuben/Jacob/Bilhah “affair” look like Romper Room!

There is something called privacy. Not everything that goes on needs to be everyone else’s business.

The sons of Jacob were twelve. Reuben changed his ways. He learned from his mistake. He learned the importance of respect and discretion. It’s not too late for us to learn the same lesson.

Have a great Shabbos.

Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz

To leave a comment about this article, or to read other readers’ comments on this article, scroll down past the archive links.



“Straight Pins and Paszkes” (2009)

… there is much about the Amish that fascinated me.  I found many things that I could relate to, and quite a few things with which I disagreed.  I understand the desire to limit the amount of influence that “English”– the Amish term for anything non-Amish — society has one’s growing children.  I certainly admire their sense of working together and taking care of each other.  However, their insistence on the use of straight pins — rather than snaps and buttons – to fasten clothes was lost on me.  …

We stayed in a hotel within walking distance of Lancaster’s orthodox synagogue so we could attend Shabbos Services.  A Chassidic member of the congregation (yes, I’m sure he’s not Amish!!) shared with me an interesting observation about the Amish…

Read more.


“Way to Go, Joe! (Lieberman)” (2003)

…A funny thing happened on the way to synagogue last Friday.

I got into my car to drive to Services.  I was running late; it was about ten minutes before sundown.  I turned on the radio and heard a familiar voice.  Senator Joseph Lieberman, candidate for the Democratic nomination for president, was being interviewed.  “What’s he doing on the radio,” I asked myself.  “I thought he’s a Sabbath observer!” …

Read more.


“The Inferior Decorator”, or,  “Stay Out Of My Bedroom!” (2002)

… To Reuben, such action was unacceptable. He would not stand by silently and watch his mother play second fiddle to her sister’s maid! … In describing what Reuben did, the Torah writes: …vayishkav es Bilhah pilegesh aviv…,… a painfully literal reading of the text gives us an additional insight. The actual translation implies that Reuben had committed adultery with his father’s wife!

…No, it wasn’t adultery. But, in a sense, it was close… It was repulsive. It was wrong…

Read more.


“All or Nothing?” (2001)

A thirty-six‑year separation had not moderated Esau’s hatred for his brother.  Jacob was returning to Canaan  after all these years, and it was time to get even.  Esau resented Jacob for having received Isaac’s blessings.  He had 400 soldiers with him, and it was “pay‑back time.”

Jacob wanted to appease his brother. … he selected a gift for his brother Esau…  Hopefully, Esau would accept the gift graciously and let bygones be bygones.  If not, Jacob was prepared to defend himself and his family.  And, of course, he had prayed to G‑d for protection…

The brothers met…  Their first argument at that meeting was as to the ownership of the gift…

Read more.


“Name that Angel” (2000)

… What is in a name? Our Sages tell us that there is great spiritual significance in the name that is given to a person. When G-d created the world, He brought all the animals to Adam, who gave them names, each of which summarized what that animal was all about. He even named himself. He called himself “Adam” because he had been fashioned from the Earth (“Adamah” in Hebrew), reminding himself that despite his potential for spiritual greatness, there is an “earthy” tendency in man that can bring him down. He also named G-d “Adon“, which means, “Master.”

… What does “Yisrael” mean? …

Read more.


This is the weekly message at   Copyright © 2000-2011 by Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz.  May be reprinted. Please include copyright information.


Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz is a Mohel (  and chaplain in Monsey, New York. For information about scheduling a Bris or a lecture, or just to say hello, call (800) 83MOHEL.


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Published in: on November 20, 2002 at 10:01 pm  Leave a Comment  

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