Underlying the entire story of Joseph is the hatred and animosity that took hold of his brothers and led them to eventually sell him. Why did they hate him so deeply? What caused their relationship to deteriorate? The Torah actually openly states that they hated him because their father loved him more than any of them, and their animosity grew to the point that they could no longer maintain peaceful conversation with him (Genesis chap. 37). The Torah also provides the reason that Jacob had more affection for Joseph: “for he was a child of his old age” (ben-zikunim, ibid.), which, at face value, is a reference to the fact that Joseph was born to Jacob later in life than most of his other children. Upon further examination of the Torah text and rabbinic literature, the picture becomes multifaceted. An additional factor that the Torah mentions also seems to play a role in the special relationship that they had. It makes sense to say that Jacob saw Joseph as an extension of his beloved Rachel, and therefore had a special bond with him. These factors that emerge from the Torah itself seem to suggest that Jacob’s love was not because of anything unique about Joseph himself, but rather due to extrinsic considerations.
The Rabbinic literature includes factors that are more intrinsic. Targum Onkelos, the ancient Aramaic interpretive translation of the Torah predating even the Talmud, interprets the phrase ben-zikunim to mean that he was a ben-chacham, an intelligent, sharp, or precocious child. Rashi (1040 – 1105) adds that Joseph was the main child that Jacob transmitted his oral wisdom-tradition to. This approach tells us that Jacob saw in Joseph the continuity of his family mission and legacy. In yet another take on the phrase ben-zekunim, the Midrash interprets it as ziv ikunim or facial features. According to this approach, Jacob loved this child more than his others since he resembled his father in appearance more than his siblings – and perhaps also in personality and temperament. If the emotions of hatred and animosity follow any logic, these origins of Jacob’s favoritism would seem to be stronger causes of hatred than the extrinsic ones above since they are based on Joseph’s unique and essential rather than relatively incidental advantages.
Whatever the basis for Jacob’s special affection for Joseph, the Talmud is critical of Jacob for showing this affection and creating a climate of favoritism among his children.
“A person should never show favor to one child over the others, for because of two coins worth of fine fabric [to make the fine tunic] that Jacob gave to Joseph and not to his other children, his brothers were jealous of him and eventually all of our ancestors went into the Egyptian exile” (Shabbat 10b).
We must learn a lesson in parenting from the mistake of our forefather and treat all of our children equally at all costs – no matter what grounds for favoritism there may be.
But parenting is of course never that simple. The Talmud acknowledges that every person in the world is unique and has their own way of looking at things – and children are no exception. It was with this in mind that the book of Proverbs was an early champion of the idea that each child must be educated and raised “according to his own unique way.” If that is true, how can we treat all of our children equally? For example, for one an extra gift could lift his spirits and give him confidence, whereas the same gift may spoil his sibling. Like so many other things in life, we must learn to walk a tightrope and strike a balance between opposing needs. Jacob and the consequences of his miscalculations remind us of how seriously we must take this responsibility.
This post will also appear in the December 7 2012 issue of the Jewish News of Greater Phoenix.