As a sports fan, I love reading the heartwarming human interest stories of athletes doing good that invariably appear this time of year. These little vignettes into their lives make the competition so much more interesting. And it seems to me that there is usually one unifying theme: they had the support of their parents. The parents stand proud and say the athlete works hard and the athlete says they couldn’t have done it without their support. We usually do not hear the story of the siblings. We don’t know what Eli and Peyton Manning’s brother is thinking. How do Venus and Serena Williams’ sisters feel?
As I read this week’s portion, Vayeshev, I can’t help wondering how their siblings felt. Was there favoritism? Did all of the children get an equal share?
If parents would like to read a treatise on why they should work diligently to avoid favoring one child over another, just turn to the book of Bereshit. First, Abraham sends Ishmael away to provide Isaac with the favored spot. Abraham then almost sacrifices Isaac, but then finds him a wife to secure his future. Is it any wonder that Isaac and his wife Rebecca totally favor one of their children? Unfortunately, though, they don’t favor the same child.
So is it any wonder that Jacob plays favorites with his clan? It’s not so surprising for a parent to dote on the youngest — well, Joseph was the youngest for a long time — but Jacob’s treatment of Joseph is pretty incredible. First he gives Joseph a fancy coat. Then, after Joseph tells his brother’s about his dreams which describe parables that imply that Joseph’s brothers will bow down to him, Jacob send Joseph out into the fields to check up on his other sons. Jacob so favored Joseph that he was clueless that Joseph’s brothers hated him.
Resh Lakish, quoting Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah in Genesis Rabbah, said “A person should not favor one child over another, for Joseph’s brother hated him because their father made him a coat of many colors.” Eli Weisel, in Messengers of God, comments that “Jacob refused (Joseph) nothing. He owned the most beautiful clothes…he craved attention…Arrogant, vain, insensitive to other people’s feelings, he said freely whatever was on his mind. We know the consequences: He was hated, mistreated, and finally sold by his brothers, who in truth were ready to kill him.”
So what can we glean from this? In an article titled “Treating children equally isn’t always fair” Dr. Nancy Brody states, “Favoring one child over the others potentially sets children up to be competitive with each other and to dislike each other.”
The Torah teaches us much about how to treat one another. Sometimes, though, we need to learn from a negative example.