Some of the Complications of Family

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Full Sons, Full Wives?

Early on in Vayeshev, 37;2, the verse describes Yosef as a na’ar, a boy, with the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah. Ramban says Ya’akov tasked these sons with watching the younger Yosef, who repaid the favor by talebearing on them (Rashi had said he told on the sons of Leah, but Ramban thinks that would leave no reason for these brothers to hate him, as they clearly do).

Leah’s sons had more than enough cause for hatred in Ya’akov’s favoritism of Yosef. The maidservants’ sons would not be threatened by that, since they were not in the running for top position in the family anyway.

Ramban follows Rashi and Chazal in assuming that Bilhah and Zilpah remained in an inferior position within the family, as did their sons, despite evidence to the contrary. Ramban does comment on one piece of such evidence, that this verse refers to Bilhah and Zilpah as neshei aviv, his father’s wives. True, in last parshah, they were calledshefachot, maids, when Ya’akov put them and their sons before Rachel and Leah when they were about to meet Esav. So which is it—were they elevated to full wife status, or permanently seen as maids?

Ramban first answers that context matters. Since these two had started out as maids to Rachel and Leah, they are always treated that way in their mistresses’ presence. At the end of the comment, he makes a complementary or independent suggestion, that once those two passed away, Ya’akov fully married them, which is why they are referred to as wives.

In between those two parts of the comment, he notes that when the Torah discusses Reuven’s sin with Bilhah, it calls her his father’s concubine; Ramban says that implies Reuven would never have done what he did with one of his father’s full wives.

He does not bring the discussion to a clear conclusion, but he seems to feel that Bilhah and Zilpah start out with one status, and slowly become more fully accepted, as do their sons.

Learning About Murder

When Yehudah convinces his brothers to sell Yosef rather than leave him in a pit, he says there’s no profit in killing Yosef and covering his blood (37;26). Ramban cannot take that last phrase literally, since there wasn’t going to be any blood. Rashi said that “covering up blood” refers to all actions taken to hide a death. Ramban thinks he can get closer to the simple sense of the words, that Yehudah was telling his brothers that bringing about Yosef’s death, in whatever way, would be tantamount to killing him and covering his blood.

His next idea was what led me to share this comment here. He says Reuven had taught the brothers that it was better to throw Yosef in a pit than to kill him themselves, that indirect causation is not exactly the same as direct action [a distinction people struggle within our times as well; I’ve seen people argue that they’re the exact same, that if one is going to do something indirectly, they might as well do it directly].

Yehudah took the morality lesson a step further, Ramban says, to remind the brothers that it was nonetheless a form of murder (as David is told in II Shemuel 12;9, about his causation of the death of Uriah, Batsheva’s husband), and they should therefore avoid it.

Ramban says both were true and leaves it at that, but he has claimed that issues of morality we take for granted were not so obvious to the sons of Ya’akov.  [Who were going to become the progenitors of the Jewish people, we should always remember. I am not questioning their stature, I am pointing out that Ramban is clear that what has been known for thousands of years can come to seem so obvious that we forget a time when it was not, when upstanding, even exceptional, people would not have understood these basic moral truths].

When a murderous rage overcomes someone, a first step is to realize that indirect action is less evil than direct. The next step is to remember that it’s still evil, and to talk oneself down from there as well. As Yehudah did for his brothers.

An Early Yibum

Yehudah’s first son, Er, dies without children. Yehudah encourages Onan, 38;8, to be meyabem Tamar, to perform levirate marriage on Onan’s widow. [I looked it up: levir is from the Latin for a husband’s brother, so levirate marriage is to marry a husband’s brother. While English uses the word brother in law for siblings and the husbands of siblings, one’s own and one’s spouses, levir was specific to a husband’s brother].

Ramban’s comment has long fascinated me, since I think he was groping towards the set of ideas that science later called genetics. The problem stems from Yehudah’s telling Onan to “establish seed,” provide some sort of continuity, for his deceased brother. Rashi thought their first child would be called after the deceased, which Ramban understands to mean they’d give the baby that name [there might be other ways to read that Rashi, but we’ll leave that].

That’s not how levirate marriage worked, Ramban objected; there’s no requirement to name the child a particular way. Nor do Boaz and Rut name their first child Machlon, although the book calls that marriage a form of yibum (even though it’s with a more distant relative, a fact Ramban will discuss). Another weakness in Rashi’s reading is that the verse here says Onan knew the child would not be his (Ramban thinks the verse uses that verb to indicate that Onan was correct, that the child would in fact not have been his in some way), and that that bothered him so much that he refused to impregnate Tamar (earning himself a word in the English language that is lastingly derogatory).

If all he had to do was name the child Machlon, why would he care, especially when relatives are usually thrilled and touched to name a child after a deceased relative?

The Child Won’t Be His and a Nascent Genetics

Ramban’s view calls the answer a “great secret of the secrets of the Torah in the creation of generations of humans,” but then says it’s easily recognized by all those to whom Hashem gave eyes to see and ears to hear. In fact, prior to the Torah, ancient wise men knew levirate marriage provided a great service, and that if no brother was available, other relatives could serve as well (the closer the relative, the better—he relates this to inheritance, which also proceeds from closer to more distant relatives, but we don’t have space to take up that aspect of it).

[He doesn’t say more, but he has said enough for me to think I have understood. Something about how people produce offspring was both secret yet obvious to those who look and listen carefully enough. To me, he means that parents shape their childrens’ physical characteristics, but that relatives share many of these characteristics.

We have words for this today, that relatives share a gene pool, and that gene pool translates into our physical and psychological profiles. Again, he doesn’t say it, but I think Ramban saw yibum as a way to produce the child the deceased brother never had the chance to. Hashem manipulates this brother’s genes so that the child conceived is a genetic match for the one the deceased would have produced with this wife. In that sense, Onan knew the child would literally not be his.]

Ramban says this works best with brothers, which fits genetics as well, since brothers are the closest match. It makes sense that a brother is best set up to give Hashem the least supernatural way to produce such a child.

Happy to Help or Resenting Being a Tool of Someone Else’s Continuity

Bereshit Rabbah 85;5 says that Yehudah started the idea of yibum; when he learned this secret from his forefathers (that even after the tragedy of a man passing away without children, we can continue that relative’s legacy), he was anxious to bring it to fruition. That’s why Hashem made it a mitzvah in the Torah, where marrying a brother’s wife in every other situation is one of the arayot, one of the capitally prohibited sexual relationships.

That, too, explains why the Torah sees it as so cruel of a brother to refuse a yibum [he again does not go further, but I believe he means that the brother has the opportunity to bring into the world the child his deceased brother did not get the chance to, and he’s refusing, a terrible cruelty.

I note also that for historical reasons we need not elaborate, Ashkenazic Jews came to prefer chalitzah, the ceremony that frees the widow to marry someone else. But the Torah sees that as an inferior choice, and my audio shiur on ou.orgA Responsum a Day for Rosh Chodesh Sivan, will, Gd willing, review a responsum of R. Ovadya Yosef’s where he vigorously defends the right of Sephardic Jews to perform yibum in our times.]

The Torah only established it for brothers, but Ramban says the wise men of the Jewish people saw that it works, to some extent, even for more distant relatives, which is why Naomi and Boaz were so invested in finding Rut a husband from within the family.

More so even than most of the other parashiyot in Bereshit, the Ramban’s we reviewed show the complications of building mixed families. Multiple wives, jealousy and hatred among brothers, and the ability to help deceased brothers leave a posterity are just some of the issues Ramban taught us about in Parshat Vayeshev.

About Gidon Rothstein

One comment

  1. Or as evolutionary biologists psychologists might say:

    “R.A. Fisher in 1930 and J.B.S. Haldane in 1932 set out the mathematics of kin selection, with Haldane famously joking that he would willingly die for two brothers or eight cousins.”

    See kin selection.

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