In Parashat VaYechi, we are confronted with Ya’akov’s blessings to his twelve sons before his death. Reuven, Ya’akov’s Bechor, is the first of the brothers to approach his father. The two Pesukim that describe his Berachah seem to cast a very harsh and negative outlook on Reuven. Ya’akov tells Reuven that he possesses “Pachaz KaMayim,” “the restlessness of water” (49:4), and Ya’akov reminds Reuven that he desecrated his father’s bed.
Although Ya’akov does indeed seemingly criticize Reuven, we must not jump to any conclusions about Reuven’s character; rather, we must trace the progression of the multitude of unfortunate events that occur throughout his lifetime. In Parashat VaYishlach, we are told about Reuven’s moving Ya’akov Avinu’s marital bed from Bilhah’s tent into the tent of his mother Leah. Rashi explains that Reuven did this since he saw it as a tremendous disgrace to Leah that once Rachel passed away, Ya’akov preferred Rachel’s maidservant Bilhah over Leah (35:22 VaYishkav). For moving the bed, Ya’akov Avinu criticizes Reuven in Parashat VaYechi by saying “Az Chillaltah Yetzu’i Alah” (49:4), seemingly describing Reuven’s actions as wrong and impulsive.
Although on the surface it seems as though Reuven committed an egregious wrong by moving his father’s bed and was therefore justifiably scolded by his father, many reasonable individuals placed in Reuven’s situation would have reacted as Reuven did. Reuven realized that Ya’akov greatly loved Rachel; therefore, Leah was pushed aside. However once Rachel passed away, Reuven rightfully assumed that Leah would become the main wife of Ya’akov Avinu. Yet, as is made clear by the Pesukim, Leah was once again passed over for another one of Ya’akov’s wives. Reuven’s actions could be viewed as a great act of Kibbud Eim which saved Leah from further disgrace and humiliation. By moving Ya’akov’s bed into Leah's tent, Reuven allowed Ya’akov to realize that he should focus more on Leah, the only living one of his two primary wives. Yet Ya’akov fails to recognize Reuven’s motives, and he scolds Reuven for moving his bed in his brief Berachah to Reuven on his deathbed.
A similar idea can be exhibited also in the story of Yosef and his brothers in the beginning of Parashat VaYeishev. Although Reuven speaks up and saves Yosef from certain death at the hands of his brothers –“VaYomer Aleihem Reuven Al Tishpechu Dam Hashlichu Oto El HaBor HaZeh Asher BaMidbar VeYad Al Tishlechu Bo” (37: 22) – it seems as though Reuven does not receive any credit for his bold actions that saved Yosef from certain death, even after Ya’akov and Yosef reunite. Yehudah, on the other hand, who was the major figure in inducing the sale of Yosef, was praised by Ya’akov Avinu on his deathbed. We can see through the unfortunate situations that plagued Reuven’s life that we must fully appreciate who Reuven was as a biblical figure and try to understand the extraordinary challenges and trials that he needed to endure.