Torah Reading for Week of December 15-21, 2019
“To be the Oldest Child”
By Chaplain Muriel Dance, PhD, ’11
The views expressed in this drash are those of the author. We welcome Torah insights and teachings from all viewpoints, and encourage dialogue to strengthen the diversity of our academy.
I grew up the oldest of seven children, with my mother telling me about her experience as the oldest of six: she was asked to watch her youngest brother (whom she wanted to name Brat). Because she did not watch carefully, her brother was almost run over, and my mother being spanked so hard she could not sit down for a week. In my experience as the oldest, I had more responsibilities, many unwanted, and more was expected of me. The Torah represents the full complexity of being the oldest. As we start Vayeshev, Joseph elicits hatred from his brothers by telling them his dreams of their sheaves bowing down to his (a dream of being the oldest). The brothers were disposed to hatred because Jacob had chosen Joseph as his favorite. The second dream Joseph retells to his father and brothers of the sun and moon and eleven stars bowing down to him prompts a berating from his father Jacob.
Reuben, the oldest of the brothers, attempts to prevent his brothers’ plan to murder Joseph: “But when Reuben heard it (the brothers’ plan), he tried to save him from them. He said, “Let us not take his life.” And Reuben went on, “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”” (Genesis 37:21-22). Reuben sounds like an oldest; he calls on his younger siblings to restrain themselves. As an oldest he feels a responsibility to his father, but he also wants to be connected to his siblings. Because he wants his brothers to experience him as one of them, he uses “Let us not take his life.” The commentators argue about the Reuben’s motives. Is he is the oldest brother who wants to do the right thing: Sforno explicates that Reuben did not want the brothers to make a hasty decision that would lead them down the wrong path. Rashi believes that his role as oldest brother made him think, “I am the first-born, the oldest of them. This whole mess will be pinned on me.” (The Commentators’ Bible: Genesis, ed. Michael Carasik, p. 354). And oldest children too have mixed motives.
Even with the most positive interpretation of Reuben’s behavior, where is Reuben when Judah spots the caravan and offers another plot to sell Joseph into slavery that will exempt them from having blood on their hands. When someone is in danger, a continued presence would seem part of the responsibility. Bekor Shor explicates that Reuben was tending the flock when his brothers’ saw the caravan while having a meal (Commentators, p. 355). Judah, the fourth son of Leah, does not have the restraining influence of Reuben. And Judah seems to have usurped the position of oldest and assumed leadership. He is followed.
When Reuben does return alone to the pit to save his brother, Joseph is gone. Reuben rends his clothes (the way we tear our clothing on hearing the news of the death of a family member). Returning to his brothers, “he said, ‘The child is not; and as for me, whither shall I go?’” (Genesis 37:30). There is a doubling of the, “I,” “ani” which indicates we should pay attention. Rashi reasons that Reuben means “where can I flee from my father’s sorrow” (Commentators, p. 337). I believe the doubling of the word for “I” might represents Reuben’s feelings of guilt that as the oldest he is the most responsible. He must be ashamed that he left Joseph alone. In not living up to his father’s expectations, he feels lost. When the brothers bring Jacob, Joseph’s coat, Jacob too rends his clothes, and duplicates the action of his oldest son Reuben, linking them together.
R. Isaac said: “The Torah teaches you a rule of good conduct, namely, that when a man performs a precept, he should do so with a cheerful heart. Had Reuben, for example, known that the Holy One would cause it to be written of him, “Reuben heard it and delivered him out of their hand (Gen. 3.21), he would have put Joseph on his shoulder and carried him to his father” (The Book of Legends, eds. Bialik and Ravnitzky, 461:545). Was Reuben lacking a cheerful heart, the happy willingness to assume his responsibility?
The oldest child is caught between parent and siblings. He/she wants to earn the love of the parent by fulfilling parental expectations. That Reuben left his watch over his younger brother may contribute to Jacob’s calling him “unstable”(Genesis 49:4). Certainly, we hear nothing about Reuben’s cheerful heart. And I know my mother’s heart was not cheerful in being asked to watch out for her baby brother. We want to do what is right and we have difficulty sustaining our good conduct. May we have compassion on ourselves.