Toledot: We're Not Doing Them Any Favors!

The Torah’s account of how our patriarch Jacob loved his son Joseph best is one to which every sibling can relate.  We’re told how Jacob’s favoritism fueled his sons’ animosity and created decades of family misery.  And, we’re told the reasons for Jacob’s partiality, including Joseph being a son of his father’s old age; Jacob’s greater love for one wife than for another; and Joseph’s early apparent prodigal (prophetic) skills.  With these timeless motivations we, too, can identify. 

But perhaps there was another reason for Jacob’s fateful playing of family favorites.  He experienced and learned this behavior from his parents.   This week’s Parashah, Toledot, tells us,  “Esau was a man who understood hunting, a man of the field, and Jacob was a plain man, living among the tents.  And Isaac loved Esau, because he (brought) hunted-game for his mouth, but Rivka loved Jacob.”  (Genesis 25:27-28).  

When Isaac grew old and could no longer see, he called Esau, his eldest son, and bid him hunt and prepare a tasty dish.  Esau was out fulfilling his father’s request when his brother and mother conspired to cheat him of his birthright.  Isaac gave Jacob the blessing he had intended for Esau.  When Esau returned, Isaac could only offer a meager, residual blessing, in which Esau would be subservient to Jacob.   “And Esau hated Jacob because of the blessing with which his father had blessed him.”  

Many interpretations of this story exist, including how an older brother (and his descendants) came to serve the younger (and theirs), and how a woman worked her will in a patriarchal society (both themes are Torah favorites.).  But I take this story as a sober warning to all parents and grandparents.  Don’t play favorites!  

Joseph’s brothers would surely have killed him had Reuben and Judah not interceded.  Esau vowed to kill Jacob and, we can infer, would have done so had their mother not sent him away to save his life.   (Even twenty years later, when the brothers were finally to meet again, Jacob still feared Esau’s retribution).  

And the best (or worst) example of brothers hating each other due to favoritism occurred even earlier, when Gd accepted Abel’s offering and rejected Cain’s.  Gd tried to reassure Cain that he was equally loved, but Cain didn’t believe it; he killed Abel out of jealously and resentment.    

Intentionally or otherwise, we often play favorites among our children and/or grandchildren.  Even if we don’t, they may perceive that we do – and resent or even hate each other for it.  We learn from Torah that strict impartiality in parenting/grandparenting is essential – regardless of our preferences or whether one child/grandchild “deserves” better or worse treatment.  Even if they do, the results of our actual or perceived partiality may be devastating to family harmony and last for generations.   

Therefore, avoiding such treatment (or even impression) and working to mitigate such feelings, even if unfounded, among our children and grandchildren may be among our most important legacies for our family’s future welfare.  

Let them not be bitter toward their siblings because of us!  Let them not learn favoritism from us and “teach” it to their children!  

“How good it is, and how pleasant, when brothers dwell together in harmony.” – Psalm 133:1  It’s not just up to them; it’s up to us.   We don't do our favorites any favors by showing them that they're our favorites!     

Shabbat shalom.  

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  • Toledot: We're Not Doing Them Any Favors!

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A bird that you set free may be caught again, but a word that escapes your lips will not return.
Jewish Proverb