As we conclude the four parshiot that deal with the stories of Jacob and his sons, we are again confronted by unresolved questions about Jacob’s actions as a father. The question of how could Jacob openly favor Joseph surfaces again in our parsha: it appears that Jacob repeats the same mistake by openly favoring Ephraim in Menashe’s presence!
I believe the Rosetta Stone for understanding Jacob’s parenting decisions is the fact that Joseph was the first person to lose his mother at a young age.
In a household with many mothers, Joseph had a particularly strong connection to his mother and was consequently bereft when she died. (As opposed to Benjamin who never knew his mother). Therefore, Jacob loved Joseph and performed more actions (peulot) of love for Joseph because he needed that extra love.
With this notion, we can better understand Jacob’s reaction to Joseph’s gossiping at the beginning of Parshat Vayeshev. Immediately after the Torah identifies Joseph as a slanderer, the Torah then states that Jacob loved Joseph more than the other sons. It is puzzling series of verses. Why would Jacob show extra love to Joseph for being a slanderer? It seems that Jacob is rewarding Joseph for engaging in negative behaviors.
The answer I believe is that Jacob was wise enough not to be solely focused so much on what Joseph was doing—rather Jacob’s primary focus was on why Joseph was slandering. Jacob understood that there was a void in Joseph’s soul and he was simply trying to find the extra love and attention that was missing by engaging in negative behaviors. *
Jacob’s mistake was that he thought his other sons had the wisdom to understand why Jacob gave extra love and attention to Joseph. When Joseph dreamt of the stars bowing to him, Jacob asked: “Shall I and your mother come to bow down to you?” In a message that the other sons are supposed to hear, Jacob is hinting that what’s driving these grandiose dreams is nothing more than the cry of 17-year-old boy for his mother.
In a similar vein, I believe that Jacob assumed that his other sons would understand that the gift of the coat of many colors was given as an expression of love, to help fill Joseph’s emotional void.
Yet, as well-meaning as Jacob’s actions were and as logical as his motivations seemed, Jacob’s other sons did not understand. Instead of showing compassion to Joseph, they became jealous and enraged.
The lesson from the story of Jacob, Joseph and the brothers is that while a father must perform more actions for children who are hurting and in pain; fathers and mothers must do whatever is necessary to make sure that all children feel loved.
When a child feels loved, he or she won’t begrudge the extra love, affection and privilege afforded to another sibling. Conversely when a child does not feel loved, he or she will internalize the extra attention shown to another child as a painful slap in the face.
The proof to my assertion is that Jacob switched his hands and placed his right hand on the younger Ephraim in the presence of the older Menashe. What is fascinating is that Menashe does not become angry or depressed by Jacob’s apparent slight. Instead, Menashe reacts with contentment and equanimity.
The reason is that several verses earlier, Jacob said that Ephraim and Menasheh are like Reuven and Shimon. When Menasheh heard that he was viewed with such esteem by his grandfather, he was overwhelmed; he was told that he was as great as his uncles. Feeling his grandfather’s love for him, Menasheh was at ease with his younger brother receiving more attnetion.
Jacob learned from his mistake and through the Menasheh story, Jacob teaches us that when a child feels loved by his or her parents and grandparents, that child can bless another sibling who achieves and possesses more.
May Hashem give us the ability to give what is necessary to help our children who are hurting, and may Hashem give us the wisdom to ensure that every child feels loved.
- Support for my thesis comes from the Midrash that says that Jacob specifically taught the Torah of Shem and Aver to Joseph. According to Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky, the Torah of Shem and Aver is the Torah of Galut, the Torah of Exile. The Torah of Exile is the Torah of pain, alienation and loneliness. The reason that Jacob taught this Torah of exile was that Jacob perceived that Joseph was in an “internal exile” and needed the lessons of the Torah of Shem and Aver to persevere successfully.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.