The Torah in Parashat Vayishlach (35:22) briefly tells of the sin committed by Reuven, Yaakov’s oldest son, who is described as having slept with his stepmother, Bilha. Rashi, based on the Gemara’s discussion (Shabbat 55b), famously asserts that Reuven did not actually engage in a forbidden relationship with Bilha, but rather committed a different offense, which the Torah describes in hyperbolic terms to underscore its severity. Namely, Reuven moved Yaakov’s bed from Bilha’s tent into the tent of his mother, Leah. As Rashi explains, Yaakov had kept his bed in the tent of his favorite wife, Rachel, and after her passing – which, as indicated by the Torah, occurred just prior to Reuven’s sinful act – Yaakov moved his bed into the tent of Bilha, Rachel’s maidservant whom she had Yaakov marry. Reuven considered it a slight to his mother’s honor that Yaakov chose to make his permanent residence with Rachel’s maidservant, rather than with Leah, and so he boldly brought Yaakov’s bed out of Bilha’s tent and into Leah’s tent.
The Maharshal, cited in Siftei Chakhamim, elaborates on this account, suggesting a possible reason for why Yaakov chose to move his bed into Bilha’s tent after Rachel’s tent. Accordingly to the Maharshal, Yaakov would have preferred moving his bed into Leah’s tent, rather than in the tent of one of the maidservants. However, Yaakov wrongly assumed that this was not Leah’s wish. After Yaakov had regarded Rachel as his primary wife throughout the years, ever since he married the two sisters, Yaakov assumed that Leah would not want Yaakov’s primary residence to be with her. Therefore, he decided to move his bed into Bilha’s tent. Reuven, however, knew his mother’s preferences, and realized that to the contrary, Leah would find it insulting to have Yaakov move his bed into Bilha’s tent. He therefore took the initiative and moved the bed into Leah’s tent.
Rav Chaim Elazary, in Netivei Chayim, observes that according to the Maharshal, Reuven acted in a manner which he thought would be beneficial for both his parents. Whereas it is commonly understood that Reuven sinned by inappropriately opposing his father, it seems that according to the Maharshal, Reuven acted to help his father, who wanted to move his bed into Leah’s tent. Reuven moved the bed to fulfill Yaakov’s wishes, not to protest his father’s decision. And yet, the Torah condemns his action in the strongest possible terms, equating it with outright adultery. The lesson to be learned is that even the best intentioned actions, done with sincere motives and out of a genuine desire to help another person, can constitute grievous offenses. Even when we think we are helping our fellow, and even when feel confident that we know better than that person what can help him, this does not necessarily entitle us to interfere with his private affairs without his knowledge. Reuven’s mistake was in trying to resolve this matter through bold, independent action, rather than through communication, by speaking to his father about the situation. The Torah here teaches us that sincere motives do not justify all actions, and that careful consideration is needed before we try to help other people without their consent.