One of the tragic characters in the Torah is our father Yaakov's first born, Reuven.
In the parsha of Vayetze we read of his birth. We also get a clue as to the root of the issues that would later comrpomise him. Why do I refer to Reuven as tragic and compromised?
It seems every effort he took, though motivated by good intentions, was either wrong or failed or both. When the brothers decided to murder Yosef it was Reuvan who told them, "no put him in the pit". He hoped to later go back and rescue him. Indeed he came back, but Yosef was already gone, sold into slavery in Egypt. Prior to that it was Reuven who earned his father's ire when he switched the marital bed, so that Yaakov would sleep with his mother Leah after Rachel's death and not with Bilha, another wife. And after when the family was suffering with famine and Yaakov did not want to send Binyamin down to Egypt for fear he too would be lost, Reuven begged Yaakov to let them go. He took responsibilty saying "Put my two sons to death if I do not return Binyamin to you".
While well intentioned, the guarantee was more fool hardy than persuasive.
The result of Reuven's failings cost him the extra portion that routinely belonged to the first born. It went to Yosef instead.
What is the root of Reuven's failings? Why did he not measure up?
The answer can be gleaned from a vignette give to us in the week's reading.
The Torah tells us that Reuven found beautiful flowers in the field, 'dudaim', translated as mandrakes. He brought them home to his mother Leah. Rachel saw the gift Reuven brought his mother and envied her. She asked for the flowers.
Rachel's request infuriated Leah. She said "is it not enough you took my husband, now you want my son's flowers too!" They came to an agreement. Rachel got the flowers. Leah got to sleep with Yaakov that night.
Lets look at the story a minute from Reuven's vantage point. Reuven was a child, no more than 4 at the time. He brought his mother flowers, and why? He saw her sadness, the rejecttion she felt that her husband did not love her. He was a first born. He wanted to protect his mother, bring her happiness. Many first borns in families where mother's are suffering at the hands of their husbands become the mother's protector. Later it was Reuven who switched the marital bed after Rachel died. There too he was seeking to defend the honor of his mother. He was offended for her that his father would make his regular domicile with Bilha, a former slave girl over Leah, his mother.
Yet what does Leah do with Reuvan's flowers. Rather than cherish them as the gift of her oldest son she barters them for an extra night with her husband. She gives them away! What feelings would you imagine that engendered in Reuvan? What effect would that have had on his self esteem?
Reuvan gets stuck trying to fix what is unfixable. He desparately wants to make it right for his mother, for the family. Why? Because he himself needs a family intact so he might get the love he needs from his mother. Leah never seems able to focus on her children. She is too preoccupied trying to win her husband's affection. Unlike Sarah and Rivka, our earlier matriarchs, who named their children for something connected to the child himself, Leah named each and every child out of her own agenda.Each was seen merely as an instrument to win Yaakov's love. Even the chidren's names are not about them but about their mother's drama.
Leah is love starved. And Reuven's efforts to give her love of a different sort don't do it for Leah.
I will tell you a secret. We tend to see the story of the enmity of the brothers for Yosef as a result of Yaakov's favoritism of Yosef over his siblings. I am sure that had an effect. The Torah tells us so. The brothers were jealous. But if they would grown up with a healthier sense of self I don't believe the jealousy would have reached the level of hatred it did. No, it was not Yaakov's preference of Yosef alone that generated the tragedy of Yosef. It was that they were raised by a mother who was unable to love them sufficiently. Leah was profoundly wounded by her husband's rejection. She felt unloved. She was constantly in search of love. She had no love to give, or certainly not enough love. The brothers, never having gotten the love they needed from their mother and feeling less-than in the eyes of their father were indeed vulnerable to feelings of hate and jealousy.
Reuvan could not become who he was meant to become because he did not get the nurturing he needed in the critical years of his development. The psychic health of parents has a direct influence on the becoming of their children. It is true, some children grow up to become fully themselves despite the lacks in their growing-up years. But most, like Reuven, are forever affected.
It is too bad Leah did not have a therapist to go to to discuss her emotional pain or a very good friend. They might have told her to give up on her husband's love, that it will never come. They might have told her instead to love and draw sustenance from other loves, like that of her children. Moreover they might have helped her see that Yaakov's lack of love for her was not reflective of a character flaw in her. They might have helped her see that despite her sense of rejection she was both good and worthy.
There is much to think about here. But let us for now take this one truth as given us from the readings. We need to take care of our pyschic health even as we take care of our physical wellness. Our psychic health has a direct influence on the emotional well-being of our children. Unless we work through our own issues with our parents and in our families of origen they will likely be passed on, in one form or another, to the next generation.
That may not be a comforting thought...but it does not make it any less true!