Parshat Vayishlach contains the puzzling story of Reuven and Bilhah. The Torah tells us (Bereishit 35:22), “VaYeilech Reuven VaYishkav Et Bilhah Pilegesh Aviv VaYishma Yisrael,” “And Reuven went and lay with Bilhah, his father’s concubine, and Yisrael (Yaakov) heard.” Chazal (Shabbat 55b) make it very clear that this Pasuk cannot be interpreted literally. They explain, rather, that after Rachel died, Yaakov moved his bed to the tent of Bilhah, Rachel’s maidservant. Reuven saw this as an affront to his mother’s honor, and subsequently moved his father’s bed to Leah’s tent. Concerned that people might accidentally interpret the story literally, Chazal mandated that the story not be translated into Aramaic, the common tongue of the people, when read during Keriat HaTorah (see Megillah 25a). Why are Chazal so concerned about protecting the reputation of Reuven? There are other misleading Pesukim which, despite having been altered in the Septuagint, were allowed to be translated into Aramaic during Keriat HaTorah (such as Bereishit 1:26, see Megillah 9a)!
One can suggest an answer based on the Yalkut Shimoni. The Yalkut calls Reuven the “Bechor LaTeshuva,” the first to do Teshuva. As Reuven was the first to accomplish the Herculean task of complete repentance for his sin, we protect his honor by not translating a Pasuk which could denigrate him. This, however, leaves another problem in its wake. Reuven was not the first to do Teshuva; Kayin (Bereishit 4:13-14) did Teshuva, as did Avraham (since he was raised as an idolater). How can the Yalkut call Reuven the first when in fact this not the case?
The Kotzker Rebbe answers that, although Reuven was not the first to do Teshuva, he pioneered a new form of Teshuva. Reuven was the first to do Teshuva for what, in his mind, was a great Mitzvah. He was attempting to defend his mother’s honor, but, in actuality, was committing an Aveirah. Even so, when Reuven was told that what he had done was wrong, he accepted his guilt and did Teshuva. This type of Teshuva takes a lot more strength because the person originally acted with the best of intentions. This is why Reuven is singled out as the first to do Teshuva and why Chazal wanted to protect Reuven’s reputation.
Many people, when confronted with the notion that they have sinned, will respond, “But I didn’t mean to.” Chazal are teaching us, through the example of Reuven, that this argument is invalid. While good intentions are a start, they cannot substitute for the correct practice of Halacha. This is one of the main roads where Orthodox Jewish practice and other sects and religions split paths. We place heavy emphasis on concrete actions, not ethereal intentions. What is wrong is wrong; what is right is right. We should learn from Reuven and be willing to correct our actions regardless of what our intentions may have been.