When I was younger, my grandparents would take my cousins and me out for special days. They’d work very hard to make certain that each of us was treated exactly the same way so none of us could accuse them of favoritism. Occasionally, when we’d all get together, my cousins and I would go at each other. I, of course, was never the cause of the fight, and I always made sure to let my Zayde know I was still his perfect little redhead. Unfortunately, having raised three girls of his own, my Zayde was wise to my ways and always retorted with “If one of you cries, you all cry.” That was usually enough to get us to knock it off.
No one likes to think that someone else is receiving special treatment. The simple explanation that because your older sister had to wait until she was eight to get her ears pierced, you’ll have to do the same will invariably elicit the response, “It’s not fair!” We try to set standards of behavior and treatment to ensure that everyone gets a fair shot, whether or not it’s always interpreted that way.
In our parshah this week, Parshat Vayeshev, we see Jacob struggling with this very same challenge of parenting. His brood of twelve sons and one daughter gives him many problems. Jacob is no stranger to favoritism among parents; after all, we learn immediately upon his birth that Rebekah favors him and that Isaac favors Esau. One would hope that Jacob learned from his parents’ mistake or learned from the pain he caused Leah when he made it clear that Rachel was his favored wife. This is not the case. Jacob picks favorites, and soon it becomes known to all his children that Joseph is the favorite. Try as the other sons may, Joseph is the apple of his father’s eye, receives gifts from him, and is awarded preferential treatment.
Joseph is definitely aware of his brothers’ resentment and his father’s favoritism towards him, and yet he continues to go on and on about his dreams of superiority over them. Why does Joseph seem so unaware or unphased by the resentment his brothers express? Aviva Zornberg, a modern commentator, reminds us that Joseph is an adolescent, unable to see clearly how his actions impact those around him. The narcissism of Joseph’s youth and the jealousy of Joseph’s brothers led to a no win situation.
Jacob choosing Joseph as a favorite child ultimately cost Jacob his son and his family for many years. The text begs us to examine what favoritism and ego can do to a family and relationships. Thinking only of ourselves or only of those we see as the “best” leads to painful consequences. Zayde’s threat of “If one cries, you all cry” may have been a way to keep us in line, but it’s also a reminder of the value of a human life. If one of us suffers, we all suffer. If one person can bring respect and kindness to just one other person who needs it, imagine the possibilities.
THIS TOO IS TORAH: One of the most memorable moments from the 1970s sitcom The Brady Bunch shows Jan Brady’s frustration when her older Marcia gets all the attention. Watch this short clip from the show. What do you think of the parents’ reaction? Do they show favoritism or are they fair?