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What on earth was Jacob thinking?



Rabbi Dr David Nossel

“And Israel loved Joseph more than all his sons for he was the son of his old age, and he made him a striped coat. And the brothers saw that their father loved him more than his brothers and so they rejected him and were unable to speak to him peaceably” (Genesis 37:3).

The Talmud spells out the lesson for us: A person should not make a distinction between one child and his other children, for as a result of the two coins worth of fine wool that Jacob gave to Joseph more than his other sons, Joseph’s brothers became jealous, the matter evolved, and our fathers went down to Egypt (Shabbat 10b).

Sounds like Jacob really messed up. But this is hard to swallow. Our giant patriarch Jacob?! Surely not. But the verses say so. And so does the Talmud. So, what are we supposed to do about that?

The answer is startlingly simple. We are supposed to do what the brothers failed to do: to ask the question of Jacob: “Why did you do this?” If the brothers had asked this question, they would have obtained a most beautiful answer. They would have heard that Jacob chose to do so, not from a place of smallness, but from one of greatness.

The Talmud’s statement that says “A person should not make a distinction between one child and his other children” only applies when all his children are still in their childhood. But if one of them has matured into an adult, then there is very good reason to single out the adult – for he will become the model for the rest of his siblings to follow. Joseph was that child who had become an adult. And Jacob wanted the rest of his children to be like Joseph. To grow up.

Children see preferential treatment as infuriating; adults see it as an opportunity to inquire about people’s unique talents and responsibilities. Joseph’s brothers rejected Joseph for his differences. Joseph was able to admire them for theirs.

Jacob gave Joseph his special love because he knew that Joseph both deserved it and needed it. He deserved it because he had got his father’s message of embracing adulthood, and he needed it because Jacob commissioned him to teach this message to his brothers, to help them grow up. And that was not going to be easy.

All Joseph’s brothers had to do was to grow up sufficiently to ask: “Why is Dad treating Joseph differently?” and they would have been told: “Because a father wants his children to grow up.”.

Eventually the brothers got their father Jacob’s message right. They left the world of childhood and went down to Egypt as fathers themselves.

May we get our forefather’s message right as well.

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