Parashat Vayeshev: The cost of an educational mistake

It seems that Jacob saw Joseph as his first son, despite the sons Leah bore before him. It is no wonder that this attitude led to tremendous tension between Leah’s sons and Joseph.

 OUR SAGES demand we give each child the treatment he deserves.  (photo credit: Michał Parzuchowski/Unsplash)
OUR SAGES demand we give each child the treatment he deserves.
(photo credit: Michał Parzuchowski/Unsplash)

Two weeks ago, we read about the deceit perpetrated by Laban when he gave Jacob his older daughter Leah instead of the younger one whom Jacob loved, Rachel. In the end, Jacob married both Leah and Rachel, but the Torah attests to the fact that he loved Rachel, while Leah was hated.

Even the fact that Leah bore him six sons and Rachel was infertile did not change the complicated situation. Rachel was, in Jacob’s eyes, the main wife, the one he loved wholeheartedly.

As long as Rachel hadn’t given birth, Jacob could stay disconnected from his family and living in Haran. But once Joseph was born, the son of his beloved wife, Jacob saw it as the right time to return and reunite with his family in the land of Canaan.

It seems that Jacob saw Joseph as his first son, despite the sons Leah bore before him. It is no wonder that this attitude led to tremendous tension between Leah’s sons and Joseph.

 SCRIBES FINISH writing a Torah scroll. (credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90) SCRIBES FINISH writing a Torah scroll. (credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90)

Tensions in the family

Jacob, his wives and his sons returned to Canaan, where Rachel died giving birth to her second son, Benjamin. Later, Jacob favored Joseph and marked him as his successor when he made him a special woolen coat that symbolized Joseph’s special status in relation to the other sons.

Jacob’s treatment of Joseph, along with dreams Joseph dreamed that pointed to his desire to rule the entire family, led his brothers to do a terrible act, and they sold Joseph into slavery.

Joseph was brought to Egypt and sold into slavery there, and later was even thrown into an Egyptian prison because of spite.

Ultimately, as we will read during these coming weeks, the entire family went down to Egypt. There, after a change in rulers, Jacob’s family – which meanwhile had grown into the Jewish nation – sank to the status of slaves, which they remained for many years.

This entire sad story began with Laban’s deceit when he married off Leah to Jacob instead of Rachel. But it wasn’t only Laban who was guilty. In the Talmud, we find sages who point to Jacob’s treatment of his sons:

“And Rava bar Mehasseya said that Rav Hama bar Gurya said that Rav said: A person should never distinguish one of his sons from among the other sons by giving him preferential treatment. For, due to the weight of two sela of fine wool that Jacob gave to Joseph, beyond what he gave the rest of his sons, in making him the striped coat, his brothers became jealous of him, and the matter unfolded and our forefathers descended to Egypt” (Shabbat 10).

“And Rava bar Mehasseya said that Rav Hama bar Gurya said that Rav said: A person should never distinguish one of his sons from among the other sons by giving him preferential treatment. For, due to the weight of two sela of fine wool that Jacob gave to Joseph, beyond what he gave the rest of his sons, in making him the striped coat, his brothers became jealous of him, and the matter unfolded and our forefathers descended to Egypt”

Shabbat 10

Those same sages who taught us to admire the patriarchs of the nation as people who merited a high spiritual and moral level did not cover up the failures of these patriarchs. They demanded that we study the Torah honestly, not being forgiving of mistakes made, even if those mistakes were made by superior people.

Jacob, say our sages, should not have given Joseph preferential treatment. It was an educational mistake that brought tragedy upon Jacob and upon the entire family. Had he treated all his sons equally, he could have prevented the friction and tension in his family that troubled his life, and he would have prevented the suffering of the entire Jewish nation.

True, we are human and not angels. We are very far from Jacob’s virtues. And yet, we are called upon to learn also from the mistakes. An educational mistake can exact a steep price. Jewish sages direct us to learn from Jacob’s mistake and act differently, to try to give each child the treatment he deserves, to let each child feel he is always wanted by his parents, no matter what he does or what happens.  ■

The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.