21 Kislev 5772 / December 16-17, 2011
“Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his sons since he was a child of his old age, and he made him a multicolored coat.” – Genesis 37:3
In this week’s portion we follow the early part of Joseph’s life, as he has dreams of his own, is hated and eventually sold by his brothers into slavery, shuns the advances of his master’s wife, and eventually after being thrown into Egyptian prison interprets the dreams of Pharaoh’s butler and baker.
What I want to focus on is how this business came about in the first place. While not a parent yet myself, I cannot help but be struck by the actions taken by Jacob in this week’s portion. What did Jacob think would happen when he gave Joseph a special garment? Did he think his other sons would respond favorably? Did they even cross his mind?
Joseph’s response to this preferable treatment is telling and unsurprising: he considers himself to be superior, at least on a subconscious level, as evidenced by his two dreams where his brothers bow to him. While we later learn that these dreams were foreshadowing the groveling of his brothers before him in Egypt, for Joseph to have and then share these dreams with his brothers made him a bit of a jerk – one whom we too might have been tempted to throw into a pit as his brothers initially did in order to put him in his place.
I regularly take the opportunity to point out that the Patriarchs and Matriarchs were flawed individuals. They were not perfect! This can arguably best be evinced by pointing out how they all played favorites with their children. By means of example:
Abraham: kicked out his son Ishmael at Sarah’s bequest (he was willing to negotiate for the lives of strangers in Sodom and Gemorrah, but sent his own son into the wilderness without a fight)
Sarah: made Abraham kick out Ishmael (Hagar’s son) due to wanting her son Isaac to inherit Abraham’s wealth
Isaac: loved his son Esau more than his son Jacob
Rebecca: favored Jacob over Esau and helped Jacob steal Esau’s blessing
Jacob (aka Israel): favored his son Joseph over his 11 others and gave him a unique coat
Leah: cherished her own children above the others
Rachel: envious of Leah until having Joseph, whom she then of course favored
What we see here is a pattern of terrible parenting, which you can hardly blame on each subsequent generation given the shortcomings of the former.
The Jewish tradition contains significant insights as it relates to parenting, in no small part due to the (poor) example set by our ancestors.
For example, we learn in the Talmud (BT Shabbat 10b) that favoring one child over another is unacceptable and leads to disastrous consequences. The Talmud (BT Sukkah 46b) also shares that parents should not make promises to their children and then not keep them.
In Proverbs 22:6 we learn that parents “should train each child in the way the s/he should go,” suggesting that children should be brought up uniquely according to their particular personalities, character traits, and talents, recognizing that the same parenting techniques may not work for each child.
How can we apply this wisdom in our own lives?
Families today are anything but homogeneous. In fact, an overwhelming majority of families in America today are not comprised of a heterosexual non-divorced couple with two children, as society might have you think. Regardless of family structure and the admitted challenges that various structures present, our tradition recognizes the inherent challenges that accompany raising children, and that while we must strive to be fair and responsive to each child’s needs, the reality, just like it was for our ancestors, is that competing family dynamics are a part of human nature, and in many ways are what make us human.
For those of you who already have children, hopefully you can learn from the mistakes of our ancestors, and find guidance in some our tradition’s teachings.
For those of you who do not yet have children, take a moment to ponder how our tradition’s teachings around parenting might inform your interaction with others on a daily basis.
Recognizing the imperfections of our ancestors and seeking to learn from them is an essential part of being Jewish, and the accompanying endeavor to make ourselves better people is what our time here is all about.