The Torah tells in Parashat Vayetze that Leah gave her first son the name “Reuven” because she said when he was born, “Ra’a Hashem be-onyi ki ata ye’ehavani ishi” – “The Lord has seen my torment, as now my husband will love me” (29:32). This name reflects Leah’s belief that God quickly granted her a child after her marriage to Yaakov out of compassion, seeing that she was less loved by her husband than his other wife, her sister Rachel. Indeed, this belief was correct, as we read in the preceding verse, “The Lord saw that Leah was despised, and so He opened her womb, while Rachel was infertile” (29:31).
The Gemara, in a surprising passage in Masekhet Berakhot (7b), gives an additional reason for why Reuven was given this name, explaining that Leah said, “Re’u ma bein beni le-ven chami” – “Look at the difference between my son and my father-in-law’s son.” Leah noted that her brother-in-law, Esav, resented losing the firstborn’s blessing to his brother despite his having knowingly sold him the birthright, to the point where he even threatened to kill Yaakov for seizing his blessing. Reuven, on the other hand, had the birthright taken from him and given to his second-youngest brother, Yosef (Divrei Hayamim I 5:1), but he did not protest, and even rescued Yosef when the other brothers tried to kill him. And thus while Esav tried to kill his younger brother who was given the birthright due to his having knowingly relinquished it, Reuven tried to save his younger brother who was given the birthright against Reuven’s will.
Many commentators have noted the seeming peculiarity of the Gemara providing a different explanation for Reuven’s name than that explicitly given by his mother who named him. If the Torah tells us very clearly what the name “Reuven” signifies, then there does not seem to be any reason for the Gemara to propose a different explanation of the name’s meaning.
One way to approach the Gemara’s comment, perhaps, is to note the irony of Leah making the observation ascribed to her by the Gemara, specifically in this context. Leah names all her sons to commemorate her feelings of triumph and vindication in the tense struggle for Yaakov’s love. The background of this struggle is the Torah’s introduction to the account of the births of Yaakov’s children: “He even loved Rachel more than Leah” (29:30). Leah found herself in a struggle with her younger sister, vying for Yaakov’s affection and for the position of favored wife. It might therefore strike us as ironic that right at the outset of this process, with the birth of Leah’s first child, she makes a prophetic comment about Reuven’s ability to rise above sibling rivalries and show devotion to his younger brother in favor of whom he lost his stature of firstborn. Just when Leah triumphantly revels in her victory in her struggle with her sister, we are told of Reuven transcending internecine struggle and rivalry, and showing unbridled devotion to his younger brother who usurped his favored status.
In light of this contrast between Leah’s struggle and Reuven’s rising above family struggles, we might suggest that the Gemara did not actually mean that Leah prophetically foresaw Reuven’s greatness already at the time of his birth. The contrast between Reuven and Esav was made not by Leah, but by Chazal, perhaps as a subtle criticism of Leah’s competitive mindset. While we can certainly empathize with her frustration of being the less loved wife, it seems that Chazal found something inappropriate in the competitiveness that Leah repeatedly expressed with the birth of her children. Family members should not be struggling against one another, but should rather be working together. They should see themselves as equal partners, not as competitors. Of course, Leah and Rachel found themselves in a very unusual position as a result of the former’s deceptive marriage to Yaakov, an arrangement which made competition difficult to avoid. Nevertheless, as Leah celebrates her moments of triumph in this competition, Chazal draw our attention to the noble response of her oldest son, Reuven, who was in a somewhat similar position, having forfeited his status of distinction to his younger sibling, and yet managed to avoid competition and struggle. The Gemara’s comment is meant to urge us to follow Reuven’s example, to avoid the tendency to struggle and compete for positions of stature and importance, and to instead see our fellow Jews as equal partners in our collective effort to serve the Almighty.