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Vayeshev(Genesis 37-40)

Showing Favoritism to Children

For a parent to be fair and give each child equal treatment has never been an easy task. But a good friend of mine living in Jerusalem had an unusual experience that he says made it particularly hard to see all his children in the same light. His wife had given birth to a new baby boy, and the family was celebrating the "Shalom Zachor," a gathering of friends held the Friday night before a baby's Bris.

Suddenly, an old, wizened Sephardic mystic came unexpectedly into the celebration. He quieted the room and announced that the newborn would grow up to be a great Torah scholar. Then, as abruptly as he had entered, the old Kabbalist left, leaving the guests in a state of bewilderment.

Remarkably, some years have passed since that occurrence and the child has, in fact, shown signs of genius. My friend says that the old rabbi's words clearly had their effect, and he wonders whether this child, more than any of his other children, is bound for a life of exceptional greatness.

This story is similar to one in this week's Torah portion, Vayeshev. The Midrash says that from the moment of Joseph's birth, it was clear to his father Jacob that Joseph was very special. To begin with, his facial appearance was remarkably similar to his father. Moreover, Joseph possessed a great deal of "chein" - spiritual charm. Joseph was also the first child born, after many years of waiting, to Jacob's beloved wife Rachel. In short, various realities were conspiring to make Joseph the "special son."

Later, in his teenage years, Joseph has a dream in which the sun, moon, and stars are all bowing down to him. He and the rest of his family correctly surmise that the meaning of the dream is that his father, stepmother, and brothers will all eventually prostrate themselves before him. While Jacob publicly chides Joseph for his dream, the Bible says that Jacob "guarded the matter." Rashi explains this to mean that in his innermost heart, Jacob actually expected the dream to come true.

Given all these factors, it is not surprising that Jacob showed favoritism toward Joseph. Of course, the Bible tells of Jacob giving Joseph a small multi-colored armband. (The Hebrew word kutonet, which has often been translated as a "coat," can just as correctly be understood to mean "armband.") This show of favoritism was just one example; there were undoubtedly other factors which caused the rest of the brothers to feel that Jacob loved Joseph most.

While one can perhaps understand Jacob's behavior, the Talmud roundly condemns his actions, ascribing Jacob's favoritism as the direct cause of the brothers' hatred for Joseph. This hatred in turn led them to sell Joseph as a slave down to Egypt.

Interestingly, it was Joseph's prominence there that ultimately caused the whole family to relocate in the Kingdom of the Nile. Thus, the Sages observe, if Jacob had treated all his children equally, it is entirely possible that the Jews never would have gone down to Egypt in the first place - and the whole period of slavery in Egypt might have been avoided.In a famous pithy phrase, the Sages say: "A small armband caused our people to be enslaved in Egypt."

While we can understand Jacob's plight, the reality is that Judaism demands that we treat all children equally. This is not just because it is good practical advice, but rather because the Torah teaches that everyone has their own unique role to play in this world. Greatness is not determined by what gifts and talents we have, but rather by what we do with those gifts.

Thus, in God's eyes, the average person who has applied his limited skills to the utmost, is greater than the "success" who has coasted with his God-given skills. With such an outlook, there is no place for showing favoritism to one child just because he may have more innate talent than another.

It's a lesson every parent should learn.

Published: January 10, 2000

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Visitor Comments: 15

(11) Bracha Goetz, November 22, 2013 1:48 AM

Wonderful!

(10) Otis R. Needleman, November 21, 2013 3:13 PM

My parents did this, big-time.

Am the oldest. Parents openly favored the brother after me. He got everything, got by with everything. I was not treated so well. The "golden boy" died at 27, driving drunk. The one they hated, the one they cursed at and lied to, the one they mistreated, the one they extorted money from - me - I was the one they regularly went to for help. Only helped my parents because of my youngest brother. I hate my parents for the way they treated me and am sure they have already faced Justice. Things still hurt, even after over forty years. When my mother died attended the funeral but inside didn't care. When my father died I didn't bother attending the funeral. I learned how NOT to be a parent from my parents. Don't believe you can treat all children equally. Believe it's better to treat them equitably. Each child is a different, unique person, with their own interests. Treating kids equitably means you provide the same opportunities and support, tailored to the child. But even if you treat your kids equitably, you should love them equally.

(9) Sara, November 27, 2010 5:55 AM

I vowed not to show favoritism

I grew up in a family where my dad always showed favoritism to my sister who was a Leo like himself. In the end it only brought hate and pain between us. The more he showed her favoritism the more she rebelled against him and in the end she died at the age of 30 never becoming what he expected her to be. From my observation on favoritism it seems like the kid that is favorite is the one who seems to struggle the most in life. The kid who is not favored is the one quietly grows up and make something of themselves. The favorite kid grows up expecting their parents to continue to provide for them on a silver platter. Parents create hate between siblings weather they know it or not when they favor one over the other. In the end my dad was taught a valuable lesson when he had no one else to turn to but me. After getting hit by a car I lovenly took care of my dad for 14 years, until his death.

Anonymous, March 22, 2013 1:00 PM

sae but true

I have seen so many similar cases n the child favored never or hardly ever becomes the person their parents want them too n if they do they distant themselves from their parent because of the resentment they now have n the one who they least liked will be the one who stands behind them when they fall I'll or faces another crisis.

(8) Anonymous, May 15, 2009 1:30 AM

Loving yourself treats pains from Favoritism

Favoritism happens to our family too. I am one of the less favored children. My father wants his favorite son to excel in all his undertakings. My father invested everything in him. It is so painful for us to see that. As I grew up I learned to love myself more…it is thru loving ourselves that one can balance the love that was deprived from us.

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