Parashat Vayeshev: Deeper love

Why did Jacob love Joseph?

PLATE DEPICTING Joseph sold by his brothers, 1550-1554, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. (photo credit: PICRYL)
PLATE DEPICTING Joseph sold by his brothers, 1550-1554, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
(photo credit: PICRYL)

Just as you may have asked yourself why you love the people you love, you may have wondered why others love you. When the poet Yeats was an old man he met the granddaughter of Augusta Gregory, the founder of the Irish theater. The little girl’s name was Anne, and she had beautiful, yellow sunshine hair. On the spot Yeats wrote a poem for her that concludes:

‘I heard an old religious man/ But yesternight declare/ That he had found a text to prove/ That only God, my dear,/ Could love you for yourself alone/ And not your yellow hair.’

Sometimes there is one feature that draws us to another human being; at other times a congeries of qualities.

Why did Jacob love Joseph? “Because he was the son of his old age” (Genesis 37:3) the Torah says. Of course, Benjamin was the son of his even older age, and from the same mother. Rabbi Judah and Rabbi Nehemiah offer different answers, both of which have lessons about love (B.R. 84:8).

Using the word zekunim (age) Rabbi Judah says his features (ziv ikunim) were like Jacob’s. Rabbi Nehemiah says that it is because Jacob became Joseph’s teacher (using zaken, old man, as connoting zeh kanah chochmah, this one has acquired wisdom).

Rabbi Judah’s interpretation is based in part on the striking parallels in the two lives. As the Midrash teaches, noting that Joseph is mentioned rather than Reuven who is eldest, “Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachman said: The text did not need to say “these are the generations of Jacob, Joseph,” rather it should read, “These are the generations of Jacob, Reuben…” Why does it mention Joseph first? Rabbi Shmuel enumerates similarities (BR 84:6). Here are just a sample of the parallels offered: Both were born to previously barren mothers. Both were hated by their brothers. Both had brothers who sought to kill them. Both were shepherds. Both achieved wealth. Both left Israel and both married a woman outside of Israel. Both became great through dreams. Both died in Egypt and were taken after death to Israel.

Some studies have shown that parents, especially fathers, favor children who look like them, since it sends a perhaps unconscious signal about the reliability of paternity.

There is a deeper spiritual lesson as well. We often favor those who are like us. This is not only true inside families but in the world. We are drawn to those with the same interests, attitudes, outlooks, and aims in life. The Torah admonishes us to love the stranger, which can be seen as more than a national or geographical category. Those who are different from us are strange to us. To love them is not natural and we have to learn to love.

Rabbi Nehemiah points to another kind of love, which is the bond of those who learn from one another. This is no longer about affinity because we can learn from people who are very different from ourselves. Indeed, sometimes we learn more from those who are different than we do from those who are the same.

Rabbi Judah’s analysis is based on external similarities. Joseph looked like his father, and the incidents of his life were similar to his father’s. Rabbi Nehemiah’s is based on intangibles – the connection of minds. Why did Jacob love Joseph? 

This weekly Torah portion is read the week of Hanukkah. The message of Hanukkah is the message of this difference. The motto of Hanukkah is Zechariah “‘Not by might nor by power, but by my spirit,’ says the Lord” (4:6). In other words, the physical, tangible things of the world are secondary. There are deeper ways to be in love than the physical. When we truly love someone, as the Torah teaches that Jacob loved Joseph, we find that not only God, my dear, can love you for yourself alone, and not your yellow hair. 

The writer is Max Webb senior rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and the author of David: The Divided Heart. Follow him on Twitter @rabbiwolpe.