December 2017, Parshat Vayeshev

Dear friends,

I know that there are among us those who think they come from dysfunctional families; severe issues with siblings and some really harsh vibes between parents and children. Not me of course. I treasure each of my one million siblings and I think my parents are simply perfect. But for those of you with a slightly less ideal familial situation, this week’s Parsha, Parshat Vayeshev, may help. If you think you had it bad, let me introduce you to the 12 sons of Yaakov whose internal friction and animosity was so intense that they became the 12 tribes of Israel – Israel being Yaakov’s other name.

There are numerous examples of the discord that existed in that illustrious family, but none is more mind-boggling than the story of Yosef and the venomous hate his brothers felt for him that they decided to murder him. The reason we are told they didn’t kill him, but sold him into slavery instead, was not out of any consideration for him but rather to make a quick buck.

And their hatred of Yosef was only mirrored by their extreme disregard for their father. Once they sold him into slavery they concocted a story about a wild animal devouring him and provided their father Yaakov with that fateful multi-coloured coat covered in blood as evidence. Needless to say Yaakov was inconsolable.
How did this happen? How did the brothers grow to hate Yosef so? How did they grow to be so cruel to their father?
Yosef was the eleventh son of Yaakov which should have rendered him a non-entity in the social structure of that era. He managed to rise to ultimate prominence at least partly because he was the favourite son of Yaakov. Why was he favourite? We are told because he was ben zekunim – a child born in Yaakov’s old age. That is no doubt true but it camouflages a really important piece of the puzzle.

Yaakov had four wives of which three he treated as baby machines and one whom he loved truly. In fact he loved that wife so much that he was willing to work for 7 years without pay to procure her hand in marriage. After being duped and tricked into marrying her older sister, his love was still so great he worked another 7 years this time marrying his only love, Rachel. Yosef, the eleventh son of Yaakov was the older of two from his beloved Rachel.
So Yaakov had a favourite son with whom he developed a special relationship. He gave him special presents in the most tactless way possible. He didn’t just give him some souvenir in private as their own little secret. Yaakov made a multi-coloured garment which screamed out to the world and reminded his brothers at every turn Yosef’s privileged relationship.

We must keep in mind that the privilege represented in the awesome coat was no small matter. It would have reminded the brothers of an incident that would no doubt have been a deeply traumatising experience. When their father Yaakov was about to meet his brother Esav after 20 years of self-imposed exile, he was worried Esav would kill him and his family. As a result he split up his family in the order of his love for them. Baby-machine 1 and her kids, baby-machine 2 and her kids, baby-machine 3 and her kids, and only then Rachel and Yosef. His reasoning was that if Esav was intent on killing him and his family, Rachel and Yosef would have the greatest chance of survival.

So when Yosef is walking around with his flashy coat it would be a constant reminder to his older brothers that they actually didn’t matter much to their father who really cared for only one child, Yosef.

To make matters worse, Yosef was a snitch who would go and tell his dad all the no-good the brothers were up to. Instead of admonishing Yosef and inculcating him with values of loyalty and integrity, apparently Yaakov thought this was ok.

In fact the only time Yaakov is ever critical of Yosef is when Yosef relays a dream he had that the sun and the moon and eleven stars are all bowing to him. Yaakov only gets upset that Yosef’s superiority has come to include him as well. For in the previous dream incident he had it was only the brothers who were prostrating themselves which Yaakov didn’t seem to mind. There was no scolding there.

What to make of all this? Firstly I believe it’s a feel good story of how relatively speaking we come from loving families. Even the most difficult relationships within our families don’t end up with murder or its equivalent, being sold into slavery in a world 4000 years before the advent of the human rights movement.

Second, it’s a very gripping lesson in how we should not parent. If you want to mess your kids up, have a favourite. It is conceivable that a parent may connect more with one child over others. To allow this reality to translate into loving that child more is to be responsible for the trauma of all concerned. The siblings will hate each other and turn it on the parents too.

More importantly, it is simply not right. Every child has the need to be equally loved and nurtured by their parents. What at the surface is a story about the brutality of Yosef’s brothers turns out to be a story about the trauma inflicted on them which makes us understand how they ended up behaving so mercilessly toward their own flesh and blood.

There are many other morals to this story but one last one very worthwhile to mention. If Yaakov had stopped and asked himself just once ‘how is my behaviour affecting those around me?’ perhaps the whole ordeal would have been averted. If he had empathised the slightest with Leah being an unwanted and unloved wife, with her kids and those of the other unwanted wives as feeling second class citizens to say the least, then perhaps he would have found within himself some extra love to share.

But we cannot finish this piece with a criticism of Yaakov. Our empathy must extend to Yaakov and his own upbringing as well. The precious little we know of his father was that his father favoured his older twin brother, Esav. This then is the perfect lesson. When we come across terrible behaviour it is almost certainly a result of deep trauma. This doesn’t excuse the behaviour but explains it in an enlightening way that can help alleviate it for future.

We cannot change the past but we do have the power to break the cycle of trauma from being passed onto our children. We do so by nurturing empathy and discarding our judgements which are always a product of our own hurt egos.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Shneur