I’m the oldest child in my family; my sister is around seven and half years younger. My husband Duncan is also the oldest of his siblings. There’s a lot of research into what it means to be the oldest child (and, for that matter, what it means to be the youngest or in the middle). However, if you’re an oldest child, you don’t need the research to know that being the oldest is hard work. First, your parents are brand new at parenting. They’re clueless when it comes to raising children themselves. Even the most prepared parents have never actually done this before, so the first child is sometimes jokingly referred to as the “practice child.” Oldest children have to wear down the strict rules of the parents, they’ve got to endure the solo attention, and they’re often the ones who have to help care for younger siblings. No easy task.
I’m an example of this myself. When I reached babysitting age, my parents thought it would be great to leave me home with my sister instead of paying someone else to watch us. It turns out it was a not so great idea. Instead of it being the economical choice, they ended up paying (bribing) me to watch my sister and paying (bribing) my sister to listen to me. This happened exactly once before they realized it was cheaper for them to hire a babysitter for my sister and let me just go babysit someone else’s kids for the night.
The struggles of the oldest child are very real, and we see them clearly in our Torah portion this week, Parshat Vayeshev. Vayeshev is in the thick of the Joseph story. Joseph has two dreams that he shares with his brothers, both of which make them angry with him. The brothers go out to the fields, Joseph finds them, the brothers decide to sell him, and father Jacob mourns the loss of his favorite son. After this, the story takes a turn to focus on Joseph’s brother Judah and the betrayal of Tamar, before turning back to Joseph’s life in Egypt, which ultimately lands him in jail.
Put yourself in the position of Joseph’s older siblings. What are they to do when their bratty baby brother is rubbing it in their faces how awesome he is, how their dad’s favoritism makes him special, and how his imaginative play accentuates his “golden child” status? Like typical older siblings, the group comes up with a plan to torment him, although their plan of tricking him, leaving him in a pit, and walking away to let him fend for himself is considerably worse and a lot more dangerous than your average teasing.
And then there’s Reuben, the oldest child. No matter what his younger siblings decide to do, he knows that ultimately, as the oldest, he’ll be held responsible for all their actions. At the same time, Joseph isn’t just younger; he’s also a first born, the first born of Jacob’s favorite wife. This is rivalry on top of rivalry. To Reuben’s credit, he tries to talk his brothers out of their evil plan, but he also knows that they’re going to move forward no matter what he says. He tries to make the best decision he can in a place where he knows no matter what, he’ll be blamed.
Parshat Vayeshev is our yearly reminder about the responsibility we have toward each other, especially family members. Rueben straddles the line: he neither stopped his brothers, nor participated fully in the trickery. In the end, he’s still the one who had to own up to it and tell their father.
Life is filled with hard choices and tough situations, whether you’re the oldest, the youngest, or somewhere in the middle. The lesson this week is about the way we respond, and how we don’t just sit (yashev), but instead stand up for those who matter to us most.