Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.

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. Comments written in all caps will be deleted.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Features Unpacking the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict and Its Ripple Effect on Israel’s Region

    Unpacking the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict and Its Ripple Effect on Israel’s Region

    JNS.org – Aside from Israel itself, those with a vested interest in the Jewish state are accustomed to tracking developments related to Middle East players such as Iran, Syria, Jordan and Egypt. But much global attention has recently focused on the Caucasus region at the Europe-Asia border, specifically on the suddenly intensified violence between Azerbaijan and Armenia in the mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh area of western Azerbaijan. The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, while not taking place in Israel’s immediate neighborhood, does have what one scholar called […]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Features Earth Day 2016: Israel Shines in Water Technology, Recycling, Renewable Energy

    Earth Day 2016: Israel Shines in Water Technology, Recycling, Renewable Energy

    JNS.org – On Friday, April 22, 196 nations across the world mark Earth Day, the annual day dedicated to environmental protection that was enacted in 1970. Not to be forgotten on this day is Israel, which is known as the “start-up nation” for its disproportionate amount of technological innovation, including in the area of protecting the environment. For Earth Day 2016, JNS.org presents a sampling of the Jewish state’s internal achievements and global contributions in the environmental realm. Water conservation Israeli […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture World New Documentary Explores Holocaust Humor, Role That Laughter Played in Death Camps

    New Documentary Explores Holocaust Humor, Role That Laughter Played in Death Camps

    Holocaust humor and the role that laughter played in the lives of Jews during World War II are the focus of a documentary that made its world premiere on Monday at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. In The Last Laugh, first- and second-generation survivors, as well as famous Jewish and non-Jewish comedians, discuss their thoughts on when joking about the death camps is appropriate or taboo. “Nazi humor, that’s OK. Holocaust humor, no,” Jewish comedic giant, actor and filmmaker Mel Brooks says in the film. “Anything I […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Blogs Tragedy Culminates in ‘Celebration,’ Says Israeli Author Who Lost Son to Terror

    Tragedy Culminates in ‘Celebration,’ Says Israeli Author Who Lost Son to Terror

    JNS.org – Sherri Mandell’s life was devastated on May 8, 2001, when her 13-year-old son Koby was murdered by terrorists on the outskirts of the Israeli Jewish community of Tekoa. Yet Mandell not only shares the story of her loss, but also celebrates the lessons she has learned from tragedy. Indeed, “celebrate” is this Israeli-American author’s word choice. Her second book, The Road to Resilience: From Chaos to Celebration (Toby Press), came out earlier this year. The lesson: in every celebration, there is […]

    Read more →
  • Features Opinion For Alan Gross, Cuban Prison Didn’t Harden His Heart or Weaken His Ambition

    For Alan Gross, Cuban Prison Didn’t Harden His Heart or Weaken His Ambition

    JNS.org – Alan Gross used to be nothing more to me than a tragic headline. When I started my position at this news service in July 2011, Gross had been imprisoned in Cuba since December 2009 for what that country called “crimes against the state.” Gross, a subcontractor for the United States Agency for International Development, went to Cuba to help the Jewish community there access the Internet. After his arrest, he received a trial he describes as a “B movie,” […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Features New Movie Shows How Global Economic Instability Grew From Very Local Greed

    New Movie Shows How Global Economic Instability Grew From Very Local Greed

    JNS.org – When I saw the recent Academy Award-winning film “The Big Short,” I was struck by the sheer genius of the financiers who devised the schemes and packaged the loans for resale, but it left me with unanswered questions about how the properties these loans represented were moved. “The Big Short” was largely about paper transactions, big money, and wealthy investors, and it mildly touched on the way the actual end-users — the home buyers and brokers — played into this […]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Book Reviews Psychiatry and the Spirit

    Psychiatry and the Spirit

    Why do we think so negatively about psychiatrists that we still insult them by calling them shrinks? Some medics might be quacks, but we don’t generally refer to them as witches! Shrinks; The Untold Story of Psychiatry, by Dr. Jeffrey Lieberman, is a sobering account of how psychiatry has swung from a marginal, unscientific mixture of weird theories into one of the most common and pervasive forms of treatment of what are commonly called “disorders of the mind.” Is it […]

    Read more →
  • Features Opinion At Forbes Summit in Israel, Entrepreneurship Is a ‘Common Language’

    At Forbes Summit in Israel, Entrepreneurship Is a ‘Common Language’

    JNS.org – Nine months ago, Seth Cohen, director of network initiatives for the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, and Randall Lane, editor of Forbes Magazine, were schmoozing about the “vibrancy of Tel Aviv and soul of Jerusalem,” as Lane put it. They dreamed about how they could bring young and innovative millennials to the so-called “start-up nation.” From April 3-7, Forbes turned that dream into a reality. Israel played host to the first-ever Forbes Under 30 EMEA (Europe, the Middle East, and Africa) […]

    Read more →