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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.

January 10, 2000

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Visitor Comments: 18

(14) Ezra, February 27, 2018 5:31 AM

Backstory of Favoritism is important

Joseph's position as favorite is tied to Rachel being Jacob's favorite. The whole tribe of Israel is the product of Leah and Rachel vying for Jacob's love. Children were used as tokens and their servants were surrogates that kept Jacob hopping from one heifer to the next. Interestingly, by the time Jacob dies, he has willed to be buried next to Leah, not Rachel. Deep love blossoms in time, as God gives growth

(13) Beth, December 7, 2017 5:04 AM

I may spend more time with a child, but it is not favortism.

Excellent article!

Personally, I don't favor any of my children. However, there are times, that some of my children need more of my time as they face different challenges. The other children may feel that I am favoring that child. I need to tell my children, " I love all of you equally and I try to give each of you what I think you need."

(12) Anonymous, December 3, 2015 2:50 PM

Great article! Thanks for posting!

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


(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.

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