Reuven, the firstborn of Yaakov and Leah, seems to have a confused personality.
Consider the entire story of the mandrakes (dudaim). These flowers, commonly understood to have some connection to fertility because of their shape, are sold by Rachel to Leah in exchange for conjugal rights. It is a very odd story, made more odd because Reuven seems to understand the sexual nature of this particular plant. What kind of child is interested in the sexual life of his parents – and even more so, gets involved?
And the saga continues. The Torah tells us that Reuven lay with Bilhah, his father’s concubine and Rachel’s maidservant. While our sages explain that Reuven merely rearranged the beds to influence conjugal visits, it is clear that Reuven once again crossed the line of sexual impropriety, taking an active role in matters that, both by decorum and instinct, usually repel child. In a word, children quite rightly find the sexual activities of their parents to be “icky”. But Reuven seems to be quite the opposite.
A Freudian psychiatrist might argue that it had something to do with Reuven’s relationship to his mother. There is a Zohar which seems to reach a similar conclusion. It says that the entire night that Yaakov spent with Leah, he thought she was Rachel – which made it possible for the rights of the firstborn to move from Reuven, Leah’s firstborn, to Yosef, Rachel’s firstborn. And we know, from Yaakov’s own description as Reuven as the product of his first seed, that Leah conceived on the night of her nuptials.
As JJ suggests, this can be taken a lot farther! There is a halacha that when a husband and wife are intimate, they should not be thinking of other people. It can be suggested that a side effect of a matched physical coupling, merged with a mismatched spiritual coupling, led to a child who was confused about the boundaries between parents and children, a child who sought aphrodisiacs for his mother, and rearranged his father’s (obviously delicate) conjugal arrangements. Reuven’s confusion was actually his parents’ fault, which might explain why, when the episode with Bilhah occurs, Yaakov does not say anything.
It also explains why Reuven is the son who comes back to try and save Yosef in the pit. Reuven and Yosef don’t share the same biological mother, but in terms of Yaakov’s state of mind, it can be suggested that both were conceived when Yaakov had Rachel in mind.
I don’t think that Leah was unaware of the problem or its cause. As Leah herself puts it: [Leah] called his name Reuben; for she said, Surely the Lord has looked upon my affliction. Consider her affliction on that first night: a woman wants to be loved for who she is. Can intimacy with someone who thinks only of another woman for the entire night be anything but an affliction? Yaakov of course, could not see Leah for who she actually was, because it was dark. But the very name of Reuven is an acknowledgement by Leah that she knows that G-d can see what Yaakov could not. We do not know if Leah’s explanation for the name was common knowledge – “Reuven” of course can easily be expanded into any version of “see” and “son”.
And Rachel also knew: she knew that Leah owed her for allowing the mis-marriage to occur. And she knew that the first-born was, by Yaakov’s intent, meant to be hers. So consider the possibility that Rachel and Leah were sparring about whose son Reuven actually was (emphasis added):
And Reuben went in the days of wheat harvest, and found mandrakes in the field, and brought them to his mother Leah. Then Rachel said to Leah, Give me, I beg you, of your son’s mandrakes. 15 And she said to her, Is it a small matter that you have taken my husband? and would you take away my son’s mandrakes also? And Rachel said, Therefore he shall lie with you tonight for your son’s mandrakes. 16 And Jacob came from the field in the evening, and Leah went out to meet him, and said, You must come in to me; for I have hired you with my son’s mandrakes.
The flowers were supposedly the entire point: Rachel wanted them, and Leah had them. But if it was so simple, then why is Reuven seemingly every bit as important as the flowers?
Consider that Sarah gave Hagar to Avraham – as a surrogate mother. Rachel gave Leah to Yaakov – and that first night, the night when Yaakov thought he was with Rachel, Leah was a surrogate in Yaakov’s unseeing eyes.
When Reuven was conceived and born, which woman was indebted to the other?