Parenting is never easy, but one cardinal rule of parenting is to not play favorites. Favoritism leads to a sense of entitlement on behalf of the favored and resentment on behalf of the unfavored. The parent, too, suffers in the long term as the unfavored children bear a grudge and distance themselves from the parent who didn’t love them fully. While it is tempting to tip the scale of affection toward one child for many reasons, parents must avoid going there lest they sew the seeds of ill will for years to come. Don’t believe me? Ask our patriarch Jacob.
Jacob fell into the trap. Jacob is the father who “loved Joseph best of all” and gifted Joseph with an ornamented tunic, the “amazing technicolor dreamcoat” made famous by Andrew Lloyed Webber. Both father and son paid a heavy price because of Jacob failed to show his other eleven sons the same affection he showed to Joseph. Joseph becomes full of himself, flaunting his dreams of triumph to his brothers adorned in his beautiful coat. As a result, his brothers conspired to kill him, but instead sell him into slavery, and then they dip Joseph’s coat in the blood of a slaughtered goat and have their father believe that Joseph was devoured by wild beasts. Imagine the pain they caused Jacob until the truth comes out years later.
Why did Jacob make the mistake of lavishing Joseph with such affection before his siblings? Rashi, the preeminent medieval commentator suggests two reasons. The first is actually found in the Torah itself: Joseph was “the child of his old age.” Moreover, Joseph was the son of Rachel, the favored wife, and was born to Rachel after years of being unable to conceive. Interestingly, Joseph was not the youngest of the sons; Benjamin was. Perhaps it is for this reason that Rashi goes on to offer a second reason why Joseph was the favorite one: Joseph reminded Jacob of himself. He looked like Jacob in his “spiritual essence” (The Stone Edition ArtScroll Chumash), if not in physical appearance as well. Joseph was special in many ways, and Jacob couldn’t restrain himself from revealing his preference for this son over all the others.
I am taken with the idea that Joseph “looked” like Jacob because earlier in Genesis (1:27) we read that “God made the human in God’s image. In the image of God, God created the human, male and female God created them.” When we read that God created humankind in God’s own image, we are to acknowledge that God’s image is both infinitely varied and without form. We are also to imagine that God shows abundant love to all human beings. God doesn’t play favorites, even though all of humanity is made in God’s image. Maybe we are all God’s favorites because we all resemble God. Perhaps it was inevitable that Jacob would love the one who resembled him the most. Unfortunately, Jacob had other children who didn’t resemble him as much and they weren’t loved as Joseph was.
What if Jacob could have loved all his children as God loves all God’s children? What if Jacob could have seen sparks of himself in all the children, or even elements of his being that never came to the fore, potentiality that laid hidden? When it comes to loving all our children equally, that may be the key: love as God loves and when we can’t see our image in our children search to find ways in which our children resemble pieces of us that never saw daylight.
On this Shabbat, as we begin to read the story of Joseph, let us be mindful of how we love all our fellow beings and strive to love in a Godly way, without playing favorites.