Yaakov begins his blessings of the twelve sons by focusing on Reuven, his first son. He criticizes him for his past errors and indicates that his hasty actions have cost him dear.
Reuven, you are my firstborn, my power and the first of my strength, the epitome of nobility and the epitome of might. Unstable as water, you don't have the excellency, for you ascended your father's bed, then profaned; he ascended my couch. (Bereishis 49:3-4)
Yaakov refers to an incident many years earlier, in which Reuven appeared to sleep with Bilhah, Yaakov's wife:
Reuven went and slept with Bilhah, his father's concubine, and Yisrael heard... (Ibid. 35:22)
Now although we understand that Reuven did not actually sin in quite the way the verse seems to describe, he had, nevertheless, made a bad error for which he was now criticized by Yaakov.
It seems that Reuven lost three great gifts as a result of his actions: the bechorah (right to the privileges of the firstborn), the kehunah (priesthood), and the malchus (kingship). These are the various points referred to in Yaakov's message to his eldest son. Let us look at each of these more closely.
The Maharal explains that the firstborn is in some way the cause of the other children in a family, for without his existence, there can be no more children. This means that the bechor is a kind of middleman between the father and the other children, enabling the father to pass all of his intellectual powers and abilities to his other children. The kehunah is also a type of conjunction; it is an expression of da'as (knowledge), as in the verse:
For the lips of the kohen will guard da'as, and they will seek Torah from his mouth, for he is an agent of the God of hosts. (Malachi 2:7)
Da'as is a means of joining the intellect to the emotions, connecting the spiritual and physical components of man. Malchus is also an expression of conjunction: the king unifies a diverse nation into one cohesive people. Indeed, the verse describes the king as:
...the one who will reign over My people. (Shmuel I 9:17)
The word here translated as "reign," yatzor, actually means "to store up." Rashi understands that this refers to the king's ability to unify the people and to prevent them from factionalizing.
The common factor between these three gifts is clear: each is an expression of a person's ability to unify some aspect of human life. Malchus is the ability to connect entities in the physical world, kehunah in the emotional world, and bechorah in the intellectual world.
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THE FAILURE OF REUVEN
It was intended from the outset that Reuven would receive all of these gifts. What did he do to lose them? The answer that we suggest is quite simply that he became angry. After Rachel's death, Yaakov moved his primary abode not to the tent of Leah (Reuven's mother) but to that of Bilhah. Reuven disturbed this new arrangement in response, angry at what he saw as an insult to his mother. Anger is a character trait which causes dissent and breaks connections. We see this, for example, when Moshe and Aharon became angry with the people, striking, instead of speaking, to the rock. The Ibn Ezra says of this incident that because of the arguments among the people and their dissent with Moshe and Aharon:
...behold they factionalized. (Ibn Ezra, Bamidbar 20:8)
Anger and dissent cause disharmony and disunity. This is, of course, precisely the opposite of the aim of the gifts of Reuven. Thus, when Reuven displayed anger, the characteristic of disunity, he revealed himself to be an unsuitable recipient of the malchus, kehunah, and bechorah.
Incidentally, this helps us to explain the following point in the Talmud:
Reish Lakish said, "If a person becomes angry with a Torah scholar and he is a wise man, his wisdom departs from him; if he is a prophet, his prophetic ability departs from him..." (Pesachim 66b)
Our wisdom is an expression of connection to God. But if we become angry, as we have seen above, we break the link, and so we lose our wisdom. It should also be obvious that prophecy is a special closeness to the Divine, which will be severed if the prophet angers.
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Although these gifts were taken from Reuven, they were redistributed to other famous individuals. The bechorah went to Yosef, the kehunah went to Aharon, and the malchus to David. We should be able to detect the merit in which each of these received one of Reuven's confiscated gifts.
The prophet describes the archetypal kohen thus:
...with peace and uprightness he walked with me and turned many away from sin. (Malachi 2:6)
Aharon was very much the man of peace; indeed, the Ramban indicates that he never once angered in his whole life. Actually, in the special tefillos for rain said on Shemini Atzeres, it is mentioned that [Aharon] remained aloof from the people, who were unstable as water. (Machzor, Tefillas Geshem
Note that Aharon was unlike the people, "who were unstable." This is the identical phrase as that used to describe Reuven's impetuosity when Yaakov reprimanded him. Aharon, indeed, qualified to assume the kehunah.
Yosef's role has been described elsewhere. He was the paradigm tzaddik, righteous person, the kind of man for whom the world exists. He had the power to sustain not just himself, but also his family and, as such, was the channel between the physical world and the heavenly outpouring of goodness. His whole role in life was to be a connective force between the higher and lower worlds and to prevent disunity. He was a suitable candidate to assume one of Reuven's lost gifts.
Finally, David characterized self-effacement. He described himself as:
...a worm and not a man, the derision of man and reviled by the people. (Tehillim 22:7)
Someone who realizes his lowly position vis-a-vis God will never anger. For anger occurs when a person feels that things are not going his way; that is, he feels that he should be able to direct what will occur, but cannot, causing him frustration and anger. But if one realizes that one's powers are limited and that one is really small and insignificant, one will not expect to control events. Thus, when things go wrong, one will feel no anger. Our Sages tell us about David:
Rabbi Moni bar Patish said, "Anyone who angers, even if it is determined that he should receive greatness from heaven, will be removed from his position. We learn this from Eliav, who became angry with David." (Pesachim 66b)
In fact, when Eliav, David's eldest brother, became angry, the possibility of him ever becoming king was taken from him and given to David. We thus see David, a man of peace and self-effacement, as the ideal replacement for Reuven as king of Yisrael.
We now appreciate just what Reuven could have been. He had the potential to be Aharon HaKohen, Yosef, and David in one mighty person. But one error, albeit slight, ended this possibility forever. He could not maintain control of these three great gifts given the slight character fault which he had demonstrated. Thus they were taken from him and given to others.