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Are We All Only Children?

"Joseph's Coat Brought to Jacob" by Giovanni Andrea de Ferrari

Torah Talk on Vayeshev 5779

Growing up, my mom used to swear she had four only children. A positive interpretation of this was that she felt that my siblings and I were treated as though we were each truly unique, every one of us had distinct personalities and preferences, and she and my dad had parented as though we were all equally precious to them. The less warm-and-fuzzy understanding is that we were each so demanding we required the parental attention an only child would have had.

Raising children, parenting styles, and the dangers of parenting poorly are a very important part of the Book of Genesis. By the time we reach this week’s portion of Vayeshev we have had vivid examples of the disastrous consequences preferential parenting can cause to a family. Abraham, in part because of his wife Sarah, favors his younger son Isaac over his eldest son Ishmael, and the results of that rejection are still being felt in the Middle East. Isaac prefers his elder son Esau to his twin brother Jacob, but his wife Rebecca likes Jacob better. The results of their cross-manipulations spell conflict and a twenty-year exile for Jacob. And now in Vayeshev we come to Jacob’s own cataclysmically bad parenting of his large brood of 12 sons and a daughter. In particular, we encounter Joseph.

Joseph is one of the truly spectacular figures in the entire Bible. He will be the principal character of the last four weekly portions in Genesis, and his story has been called the first truly modern piece of literature. It is a great tale, only partly about failed parenting and sibling rivalry.

The Joseph story begins with a bang this week. Jacob’s beloved wife Rachel has died in childbirth, giving birth to the 12th and final Jacobean son, Benjamin. In a pained overcompensation for the loss of Rachel, Jacob spoils her older son Joseph, giving him a famous coat of many colors and then using him as a tattletale spy on his older, tougher brothers. The brothers’ revenge is swift: they capture Joseph and sell him into slavery in Egypt, then tell their father that a wild animal has killed him. After adventures that demonstrate Joseph’s virtue—and spectacularly bad luck, at least at first—this week’s portion ends with Joseph in an Egyptian prison, Jacob in mourning up in Canaan, and all hope seemingly lost. The eventual message of the Joseph story is that God’s plan will work, but that we aren’t always party to why.

But a second message is even more important: our children are all precious. Favoring the “good” one does no one any good. Treating each with love—as though, in fact, each of our children was truly an only child in receiving our love—is the Jewish way to parent successfully.

Perhaps, in successful families, we are all only children.

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