The Dangers of Favoring One Child Over Another

December 28, 2012 12:54 pm 0 comments

The biblical Jacob meets Joseph in Egypt.

I’ve always seen the biblical Jacob as characterized by two central yet seemingly contradictory facets. On the one hand he is the patriarch who is always around his kids. He is a father and a husband first and foremost. A really family man. On the other hand, his family appears to be deeply dysfunctional, with strife, bitterness, and jealousy rending the family asunder.

Beginning with the time he was as boy Jacob witnessed his father Isaac’s favoritism toward Esau. When he gets older Jacob repeats this error by favoring Joseph. It’s unbelievable that the Torah actually says, “And Jacob (Israel) loved his son Joseph more than all his other sons.” Which father does that, or is so blatant about it?

This leads, of course, to enormous, almost deadly resentment toward Joseph from his elder siblings. But in this week’s Torah  (bible) reading, just when you think that the family is finally united and things are healed, Jacob does it again. In Egypt, in his dying moment, after Joseph has forgiven his brothers their attempt at fratricide and brought everyone together, saving them from famine, Jacob first seeks to bless Joseph’s children, but not necessarily the children of his other sons. And second, he gives the first-born blessing to Efraim, and not Menashe, who is the older son.

What is it about Jacob that he seemingly can’t stop the favoritism? When Joseph objects and essentially says, “Please father, bless Menashe first, for he is the firstborn,” Jacob responds, within earshot of the older boy, “I know, my son. I know. And while he will grow to be a great man, he will be outdone by his brother.” Surely Menashe didn’t feel good hearing this.

Is this simply a case of family dysfunction becoming a family heirloom, passed from generation to generation? I have seen this hundreds of times with families I have counseled. The same toxic patterns are repeated from parent to child to parent to child. Studies show, for example, the high prevalence of repetitive adultery in families. If your parents cheated, there is a likelihood that you will cheat as well. The same is true of divorce. Children of divorce have a far higher rate than the national average.

Is that what this is about? Abraham favored one son, Isaac, and cast off Ishmael, albeit with Sarah’s prodding and even God’s acquiescence. Isaac repeats the favoritism with Esau, thereby scarring Jacob deeply. And Jacob repeats it first with Joseph, then with Joseph’s children, and then with just one of Joseph’s son. Seemingly unable to break free of the pattern, Jacob’s family remains divided by bitter jealousies.

This might explain why Jacob, in last week’s Torah reading, makes one of the more startling statements of the Torah. When introduced to Pharaoh and asked how old he is, presumably because he looks older than his years, Jacob responds, “I am 147 years old. My life has been short and bitter, and has not reached the length of my ancestors.” Whoa. Talk about a downer.

But there are few things in life that can cause greater pain than family dysfunction and continual fighting. No parent likes watching their children assail each other. Jacob was worn down by the constant strife. But he also seems challenged to rise above its basic causes.

Amid the Bible’s descriptions of his paternal shortcomings, I have always identified with Jacob more than any other Biblical personality, with the exception possibly of King David (whose humanity is so vividly detailed in the Bible). The reason: Jacob is so lifelike, complex, and real. He is a man whose righteousness is defined not by perfection but by a constant striving to live by the will of God amid the scarring he has endured and the human limitations that tie the hands of us all. He is the father of his nation, named for that constant wrestling and striving, “Israel, he who wrestles with God.”

To use a modern example, Abraham would be like George Washington, seemingly perfect and inscrutable. The marble man. One, the father of monotheism. The other, the father of his nation. But Jacob would be Jefferson. Jefferson, the quintessential American. The man of great complexity and even greater contradictions. But the true author of our independence. The man who, is his multifaceted, intricate nature captures the true spirit of America in all its glory, its virtue, its inconsistencies, and its shortcomings.

Our patriarch Jacob is nothing like the Christian Jesus. There is not only no pretension to divinity, of course. Less so is there any pretension to absolute angelic-like behavior. Rather, in Jacob, as in Jefferson, we find a man who is timeless and relevant, inspirational and a role-model, strong-willed, determined, and effective, precisely because of his humanity. A man who never shirks from confronting the evil of the world, even if it sometimes seems, at least overtly, to compromise him. But a man, above all else, who believes in eternal principles and ultimately never abandons them. Jacob is the ‘most special of all the patriarchs.’ A man whom we can all identify with and be inspired by his spirited and indefatigable example.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi” whom Newsweek and The Washington Post calls “the most famous Rabbi in America,” is the international best-selling author of 29 books. On 9 January, 2013, he will publish The Fed-up Man of Faith: Challenging God in the Face of Tragedy and Suffering. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Jewish Identity Sports Cycling the Desert: New Israel Bike Trail Connects Mitzpe Ramon to Eilat

    Cycling the Desert: New Israel Bike Trail Connects Mitzpe Ramon to Eilat

    As the popularity of cycling continues to increase across the world, Israel is working to develop cycling trails that make the country’s spectacular desert accessible to cyclists. The southern segment of the Israel Bike Trail was inaugurated on Feb. 24 and offers for the first time a unique, uninterrupted 8-day cycling experience after six years of planning and development. The southern section of the Israel Bike Trail stretches over 300 kilometers in length and is divided into eight segments for mountain biking, [...]

    Read more →
  • Jewish Identity Theater Forthcoming Major Action Movies Inspired by Jewish Comic Artist Jack Kirby

    Forthcoming Major Action Movies Inspired by Jewish Comic Artist Jack Kirby

    JNS.org – With the recent Oscars in the rearview mirror, Hollywood’s attention now shifts to the rest of this year’s big-screen lineup. Two of the major action films coming up in 2015—Avengers: Age of Ultron, which hits theaters in May, and the third film in the Fantastic Four series, slated for an August release—have Jewish roots that the average moviegoer might be unaware of. As it turns out, it took a tough Jewish kid from New York City’s Lower East [...]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Jewish Identity When Torah Teaches Life and Life Teaches Torah (REVIEW)

    When Torah Teaches Life and Life Teaches Torah (REVIEW)

    JNS.org – Rabbi Gordon Tucker spent the first 20 years of his career teaching at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) and the next 20 years as the rabbi of Temple Israel Center in White Plains, N.Y. I confess that when I heard about the order of those events, I thought that Tucker’s move from academia to the pulpit was strange. Firstly, I could not imagine anyone filling the place of my friend, Arnold Turetsky, who was such a talented [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Blogs Oscars 2015: Reflecting on Love at First Sight

    Oscars 2015: Reflecting on Love at First Sight

    JNS.org – I’m in love, and have been for a long time. It’s a relationship filled with laughter, tears, intrigue, and surprise. It was love at first sight, back when I was a little girl—with an extra-terrestrial that longed to go home. From then on, that love has never wavered, and isn’t reserved for one, but for oh so many—Ferris Bueller, Annie Hall, Tootsie, Harry and Sally, Marty McFly, Atticus Finch, Danny Zuko, Yentl, that little dog Toto, Mrs. Doubtfire, [...]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Book Reviews Examining America’s First Foray into the Middle East (REVIEW)

    Examining America’s First Foray into the Middle East (REVIEW)

    At the turn of the 21st century through today, American involvement in Middle Eastern politics runs through the Central Intelligence Agency. In America’s Great Game: The CIA’s Secret Arabists and the Shaping of the Modern Middle East, historian Hugh Wilford shows this has always been the case. Wilford methodically traces the lives and work of the agency’s three most prominent officers in the Middle East: Kermit “Kim” Roosevelt was the grandson of president Theodore Roosevelt, and the first head of [...]

    Read more →
  • Relationships US & Canada Seniors at Los Angeles Jewish Home Give Witty Dating Advice Ahead of Valentine’s Day (VIDEO)

    Seniors at Los Angeles Jewish Home Give Witty Dating Advice Ahead of Valentine’s Day (VIDEO)

    Residents of the Los Angeles Jewish Home give dating advice to a young Jewish man in a comedic video posted Monday on YouTube just in time for Valentine’s Day. Jonathan, an associate at the Jewish home, quizzes the senior citizens on an array of topics including having sex on the first date, kissing a girl, who should pay for dinner and whether online dating is a good idea. When the 28-year-old asks a male resident named Lee about his experiences [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Jewish History Kutsher’s Documentary an Amazing, and Tragic, Look at the Past (REVIEW)

    Kutsher’s Documentary an Amazing, and Tragic, Look at the Past (REVIEW)

    Anyone who spent time in the Jewish Catskills hotels – especially those like me, who returned for decades – must see the new documentary,”Welcome to Kutsher’s: The Last Catskills Resort.” Not only will the film transport you back to the glory days of your youth and thousands of memories, but it will also make you long for a world that is now lost forever. I returned to Kutsher’s one last time in the summer of 2009, but by then, the [...]

    Read more →
  • Education Jewish Identity Lifestyle Riding the Wave of Change in Part-Time Jewish Education

    Riding the Wave of Change in Part-Time Jewish Education

    JNS.org – Amid the numerous studies and analyses regarding Jewish American life, a simple fact remains: part-time Jewish education is the most popular vehicle for Jewish education in North America. Whenever and wherever parents choose Jewish education for their children, we have a communal responsibility to devote the necessary time and resources to deliver dynamic, effective learning experiences. The only way we can do this is by creating space for conversations and knowledge-sharing around innovative new education models. That also [...]

    Read more →



Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.