Oldest vs. Youngest – Parshat Vayeshev 5782

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.

Doing Enough – Parshat Vayeshev 5781

Could I have done more? It’s one of those questions you ask yourself in moments of tragedy. It’s difficult to know which piece of advice, which kind word, which heroic gesture will make a difference, or if any of them will. So we’re often left with this feeling that there must have been more we could have done. We could have taken even more steps to prepare for this natural disaster. We could have seen more signs that this person was in need or in pain. We could have donated to just one more charitable cause.

Our Torah portion this week, Parshat Vayeshev, taps into this unique type of self-critique. We find ourselves 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 pasture, Joseph finds them, the brothers decide to sell him, and father Jacob mourns for 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.

You may be familiar with how the brothers scheme against Joseph. However, Reuben, the eldest son, has a complicated role here. As Jacob’s first-born, Reuben must have known he would be held responsible for whatever happened to Joseph, yet Joseph was the first-born of Jacob’s favorite wife Rachel, and that likely set up Joseph and Reuben as chief rivals. We know Reuben doesn’t want to kill Joseph, like his brothers, and in fact he tries to step in and save him. And when he presumes that his interfering has been in vain because it appears that Joseph has died anyway, Reuben despairs. 

Reuben mourns Joseph and possibly feels he didn’t do enough to save him. We don’t find out until later that it’s because of this turn of events that Joseph is able to become a great leader in Egypt and eventually saves his family. The S’fat Emet, a late 19th century Polish commentator, shares “Often, we despair that the good deeds we have done have made no difference, when in fact they have made a great difference.”

Parshat Vayeshev and Reuben’s actions remind us that grand gestures and small acts have the same power in changing the trajectory of any situation. I’m not suggesting that all tragedies have to have a silver lining or that we shouldn’t feel sorrow or regret. What I’m suggesting is that ultimately time and perspective will win out. Was there more Reuben could have done in the moment? Perhaps. Looking at individual actions, it’s easy to dwell on mistakes and assume “too little too late.” In reality, though, each little contribution, no matter how big or small, can make a difference. 

Self Soothing – Parshat Vayeshev 5780

self-soothing.jpg

One of the hardest parts of parenting infants for me was sleep training and helping them learn the process of self-soothing. For the longest time, both of my children could only find comfort snuggled in my arms. I don’t blame them; I love being cozy and snuggled up too. Unfortunately, inconsistent baby sleeping led to regularly interrupted parent sleeping, and I discovered my tolerance for the “cry it out” method was exactly two minutes before I lost my mind and resorted back to snuggling. Eventually, as they both got older and with the help of their soft “lovies” and reassurance from Mommy and Daddy, they learned how to self soothe. 

Being able to healthfully self soothe is one of the skills we learn very early on in life, and it’s an essential skill for the rest of our lives. With so many ups and downs and unknowns in life, the ability to comfort yourself in a healthy and efficient way is critical to your well-being. But what happens if we lose this ability? In our Torah portion this week, Parshat Vayeshev, the patriarch Jacob finds out.

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 pasture, 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.

Chapter 37, verses 34 through 35, reveal Jacob deep in his grief after his sons tell him Joseph is gone. “Jacob rent his clothes, put sackcloth on his loins, and observed mourning for his son many days. All his sons and daughters sought to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted, saying, ‘No, I will go down mourning for my son in Sheol.’” The Hebrew word used for “comforted” here is reflexive, l’hitnachem. In other words, the pain was so great, Jacob refused to comfort himself. 

Soothing yourself as an adult is different than soothing yourself as a toddler. As adults, we can use rational thought and experience to refocus and remain calm. But in this week’s Torah portion, Jacob reminds us that there are some moments in life that don’t fit neatly into these rational coping blueprints. Sometimes even adults have to cry it out. 

Too Young to be a Rabbi – Parshat Vayeshev 5779

Screen Shot 2018-11-29 at 9.48.18 PM.png

If I had a dollar for every time someone either told me I looked too young to be a rabbi or that I was an old soul, I could have finished paying back my student loans long ago. I have always been an old soul in a younger body. When I was younger, I often preferred to hang out with the adults over my peers, and I was more comfortable in situations that seemed “adult” and less “angst-filled teen” even when I was an “angst-filled teen.”

However, given my young age, I’m also constantly reminded that I look too young to have wisdom, or to teach people decades older than me about a religion thousands of years old. I usually laugh it off, knowing that age is simply the number of years since birth, not a milestone of wisdom. Wisdom is attained through experiences, learning, and living. And in my 36 short years I’ve learned quite a bit from the experiences life has thrown at me.

Parshat Vayeshev reminds us of all the complexities that might come with age. It begins with Joseph’s youth and the problems he encounters when trying to relate to his siblings through his dreams. They subsequently sell him, which results in their father Jacob going into a deep period of mourning. Joseph finds himself in Egypt, interacting with young and old alike and using the skills that once turned off his peers to his own benefit.

Joseph’s relationship with his father, and thus also his relationship with his brothers, is sealed in the way he is described in chapter 37, verse 3: “Now Israel loved Joseph best of all his sons, for he was the child of his old age; and he had made him an ornamented tunic.” This verse is somewhat confusing. Benjamin was in fact younger than Joseph, so why did Joseph retain the preferred status? The answer for both Rashi and the Kli Yakar, a 17th century commentary on Torah, lies in the words used in Hebrew to describe Joseph. For Rashi, “ben z’kunim” refers to Joseph as a child with the mature wisdom of an older person. Thus, Joseph is wise beyond his years, and that made him unrelatable to his brothers, but the perfect peer for his father. The Kli Yakar understands it to mean that Joseph could be playful with children and mature in the company of adults. Joseph was a chameleon of sorts.

We spend so much time reinforcing to our children that they should just “be themselves.” But what if who they really are inside doesn’t match the “self” we expect them to be because of their age or sex or development? Respect and open communication are possible only when we value each person because of what they offer individually, not because of a category we put them in. A very philosophical statement, right? Well, perhaps I’m wise beyond my years.

Petey the Ghost – Parshat Vayeshev 5778

petey-the-ghost

When I was a little girl, like most kids, I had an imaginary friend. I named him Petey the Ghost. I was about four years old when I “met” Petey, and he soon started taking the blame for everything I did wrong. Who took all the clothes out of the drawer? Petey. Who made a mess at dinner? Petey. My imaginary friend was my scapegoat, and his existence was calming to me because he gave me an out. As a parent, I’m even more aware of the power of imaginative play now that my daughter Shiri has an imaginary friend. Actually, she has an imaginary community. She calls it her “ballet class.” Shiri has never had a ballet class in her life, but she has story after story about who is in her class, what music they listen to, and what happens each day.

Needless to say, Shiri and I are not the first two people to make believe. Joseph, our predecessor in the Torah, also engages in some imaginative play. Unfortunately, his “play” leads to serious trouble. This week in Parshat Vayeshev, Joseph shares the dreams he has of his brothers bowing down to him, and they do not take kindly to this imagined scenario. They sell him, and then tell their father that they found him torn up by wild beasts. We then read about Joseph in Egypt and the way in which he ends up in jail. Only later in the narrative do we discover how Joseph’s imaginative play becomes a reality.

Luckily for most of us, our imaginative play doesn’t take the dark turn Joseph’s did. For my daughter and me, the world of imagination is a place in which we can feel safe, where we can act out scenarios that might seem scary in real life. The benefit is that the lessons we learn and discover are part of our necessary growth and development as we figure out how to interact in the world.