Showing Favoritism to Children

November 17, 2013

3 min read


Vayeshev (Genesis 37-40 )

Why there is no place for showing favoritism to one child.

For a parent to be fair and give each child equal treatment has never been an easy task. But a good friend of mine living in Jerusalem had an unusual experience that he says made it particularly hard to see all his children in the same light. His wife had given birth to a new baby boy, and the family was celebrating the "Shalom Zachor," a gathering of friends held the Friday night before a baby's Bris.

Suddenly, an old, wizened Sephardic mystic came unexpectedly into the celebration. He quieted the room and announced that the newborn would grow up to be a great Torah scholar. Then, as abruptly as he had entered, the old Kabbalist left, leaving the guests in a state of bewilderment.

Remarkably, some years have passed since that occurrence and the child has, in fact, shown signs of genius. My friend says that the old rabbi's words clearly had their effect, and he wonders whether this child, more than any of his other children, is bound for a life of exceptional greatness.

This story is similar to one in this week's Torah portion, Vayeshev. The Midrash says that from the moment of Joseph's birth, it was clear to his father Jacob that Joseph was very special. To begin with, his facial appearance was remarkably similar to his father. Moreover, Joseph possessed a great deal of "chein" - spiritual charm. Joseph was also the first child born, after many years of waiting, to Jacob's beloved wife Rachel. In short, various realities were conspiring to make Joseph the "special son."

Later, in his teenage years, Joseph has a dream in which the sun, moon, and stars are all bowing down to him. He and the rest of his family correctly surmise that the meaning of the dream is that his father, stepmother, and brothers will all eventually prostrate themselves before him. While Jacob publicly chides Joseph for his dream, the Bible says that Jacob "guarded the matter." Rashi explains this to mean that in his innermost heart, Jacob actually expected the dream to come true.

Given all these factors, it is not surprising that Jacob showed favoritism toward Joseph. Of course, the Bible tells of Jacob giving Joseph a small multi-colored armband. (The Hebrew word kutonet, which has often been translated as a "coat," can just as correctly be understood to mean "armband.") This show of favoritism was just one example; there were undoubtedly other factors which caused the rest of the brothers to feel that Jacob loved Joseph most.

While one can perhaps understand Jacob's behavior, the Talmud roundly condemns his actions, ascribing Jacob's favoritism as the direct cause of the brothers' hatred for Joseph. This hatred in turn led them to sell Joseph as a slave down to Egypt.

Interestingly, it was Joseph's prominence there that ultimately caused the whole family to relocate in the Kingdom of the Nile. Thus, the Sages observe, if Jacob had treated all his children equally, it is entirely possible that the Jews never would have gone down to Egypt in the first place - and the whole period of slavery in Egypt might have been avoided.In a famous pithy phrase, the Sages say: "A small armband caused our people to be enslaved in Egypt."

While we can understand Jacob's plight, the reality is that Judaism demands that we treat all children equally. This is not just because it is good practical advice, but rather because the Torah teaches that everyone has their own unique role to play in this world. Greatness is not determined by what gifts and talents we have, but rather by what we do with those gifts.

Thus, in God's eyes, the average person who has applied his limited skills to the utmost, is greater than the "success" who has coasted with his God-given skills. With such an outlook, there is no place for showing favoritism to one child just because he may have more innate talent than another.

It's a lesson every parent should learn.

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