Tora Thoughts: Parashat Vayeshev 5778
Rabbi Rami Pavolotzky
Do not favor one child over the others
This week we begin to read the story of Jacob’s sons, especially focusing on the life of Joseph. At the beginning of our parasha, the Torah already tells us that Joseph was the preferred son of Jacob (Genesis 37:3):
“And Israel loved Joseph more than all his sons, because he was a son of his old age; and he made him an ornamented tunic.”
Why did Jacob love Joseph more than his other 12 children? The Torah says ki ben zekunim hu lo, translated here as “because he was a son of his old age.” However, we know that Benjamin was, in fact, Jacob’s youngest son (and also, like Joseph, Rachel’s son), so the explanation given here by the Torah needs an additional clarification.
The great commentator Rashi says that we should understand this expression to mean that Joseph was a child with the mature wisdom of an older person. Other sages suggest that the expression alluded to here could be read as ziv hikonin, meaning “face.” Following this interpretation, some sages think that Jacob loved Joseph because the boy looked very similar to his father, Jacob. Thus, Jacob saw in his son Joseph a reflection of himself, and hence preferred him over his other children.
There is another interesting interpretation of the expression ben zekunim, found in the well-known “Onkelos” translation of the Torah to Aramaic. The expression is translated there as bar chakim, literally meaning “intelligent son,” probably because an old person was considered intelligent in old times. According to this interpretation, Jacob loved Joseph more than his other children because he saw him as the most intelligent son, and possibly most fit to lead the clan in the future.
As you can see, there were probably many “good reasons” for Jacob to prefer Joseph over his other children. It was not an arbitrary feeling, or a choice made without justification. Even so, our sages condemned Jacob’s preference for one child over the others. In the Talmud (Shabbat 10b) they said, “See the consequences of favoring one child over another. Because of the few ounces of wool, our people were enslaved in Egypt.” Because of the ornamented tunic Jacob gave to Joseph, the best example of how he favored Joseph over his other children, Joseph’s brothers developed a deep envy that triggered the selling of Joseph to some merchants. This act brought him to Egypt and ultimately brought the children of Israel to settle in Egypt, only to fall to slavery many years later.
The lesson from the Torah is clear: We should not favor one child over the others, even if we have good reasons for doing so. We should treat each of our children the same way, without granting any one of them special privileges or highlighting one of them over the others.