Thursday, December 6, 2012

Playing Favorites

I will confess to something I do not think I ever really admitted, even to myself.
When I was a boy I was a good child. I always tried to please my parents, in particular, my father. My younger brother was much more rebellious than I and much more inclined to follow his own heart, rather than the rules. I always thought that my father loved my rebellious brother more than me. I was the "good son" yet he got the love. It did not seem quite fair.

My father is gone from this world. I loved him dearly. Though we talked about many things through the years I never got to talk about these feelings and his attitude with him. This week in the parsha of Vayeshev, through some insight into our father Yaakov I have come to understand my father better, and perhaps to understand better the father I am as well.

At the outset of the reading, one that begins the epic story of Yosef and the brothers, we are told "...and Yisrael loved Yosef from all his children because he was the child of his elder years, and he gave him a coat of many colors."
The Torah goes on to tell us that Yaakov's actions brought on the brother's hate towards Yosef, so much so that they could not even speak together without quarrel.

We all know the drama that unfolds. The brothers nearly murder Yosef. Instead they sell him to Egypt. After some initial success, Yosef finds himself languishing in prison, only to be released to interpret the dream of the Pharoah.
The sages of the Talmud warn us never to favor one child over another. They make reference to Yaakov and point out that because he favored Yosef over his brothers, a seemingly small offence, a whole nation wound up being exiled and enslaved in Egypt.

The question arises, how is it that Yaakov could so blatantly favor one of his children over another. We are talking of our patriarch.In tradition Yaakov is the examplar of righteousness. How could he make such a foolish mistake as to show favoritism? Even bad parents today know not to play favorites. Moreover Yaakov saw the chaos in his family of origen when each parent prefered a different child.
And more specifically what does it mean that Yaakov loved Yosef from his children because "he was the child of his old age" ? What role did the time of Yosef's birth play in his special status. I would have thought Yaakov preferred Yosef because he was the child of his beloved and dead wife Rachel or maybe because of Yosef's unique character.

If I may be so bold, I think Yaakov did not favor Yosef. Yaakov would not have made such a basic mistake in parenting. Moreover if he did favor Yosef it would not have been for the timing of when he was born in Yaakov's life.
No, the Torah means to tell us something different. Yaakov did not love Yosef more than his brothers, nor did he favor him. What Yaakov did is love Yosef differently than his brothers and in truth he loved him better.

We who are parents know that we grow into the role. We do not become a 'father' or 'mother' with our first child. Oh yes, of course we do! But I mean we do not really become the role of parent in the best sense until we have had years raising children. Over time we become wise to the holy work of child-rearing and of loving.
With our first children we play the role of parent but it is not yet us. Typically we don't trust ourselves and we don't trust our children. We tend to be more strict, more going by the rule. Like someone first learning to cook, we need recipes to follow. We don't yet trust our instincts or our children's intrinsic goodness.
We hold on tight afraid a miscue will cause harm to the children we are responsible to raise.

As we mature in our role we feel more confident in ourselves and in the resillience of our children. We are more relaxed with our charge and more trusting of both them and the process. To older chidren who look at the way we parent their younger siblings it may appear that we are favoring them. We are often not as demanding,we are more able to give without fear that we are 'spoiling' the child. We may seem to love the younger in the group with a less conditional love. And that may foster some resentment. To be truthful, as I look back, my father did not really show my brother more love than he showed me. He just didn't make the love he gave him conditional on his being good!.

My sense is that the brothers of Yosef experienced that dynamic as well. They saw their father was more liberal with Yosef. While they tended the sheep he tended his hair! Yosef was a dreamer not a worker. He got the same love his brothers got but without having to earn it. The Talmud taught us that 'the ├žoat of many colors'was actually of very little real value. Yaakov gave it as a gift to Yosef without him having to have earned it. It was the gift for free, something they had not experienced with their father that engendered their resentment. Sometimes children harbor similar resentment, if unspoken, when their parents are generous with their grandchildren in a way they never were with them.

Its not that the grandparents love the grandchildren more. Its rather that the parents, now grandparents, have matured and grown in their role. They are no longer afraid to let go in acts of generosity with their progeny.

We now can understand why the Torah's explanation for Yaakov's greater love was because Yosef was a son of his old age. Yaakov's love was not more for Yosef than the brothers, but it was a greater love. It was greater in quality because indeed Yaakov was older and wiser. He knew how to love his children in a way he did not when Yosef's brothers were of similar age.The jealousy of the brothers is understandable. But Yaakov is not at fault. Every good parent becomes more able to love as they mature.
Its not about favorites. It is about becoming a better parent.

I understand my father now in a different way. He did not love me less than my brother.
He loved me differently because he had become a different father through experience and maturity. Perhaps my insight will help you too as you think on the years of your youth and your relationship with your parents. Perhaps it will help you as parent to ease the spoken or unspoken jealousies of your children over the love you gave to their younger siblings or to your grandchildren.

Sometimes all it takes to lighten our load is a new perspective.

Shabbat Shalom

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