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15.12.2019 16:29    Comments: 0    Categories: Weekly Parashah      Tags: torah  shabbat  parashah  genesis  vayeshev  



“Now Israel loved Joseph best of all his sons, for he was the child of his old age”

This verse (Gen. 37:3) gives a rare insight into the parent-child relations of our patriarch Jacob, the chosen one of the Patriarchs, with his sons. Contrary to the natural inclination to view the behavior of the Patriarchs as foretelling that of subsequent generations, we find that the Sages were quite critical of their behavior:

Raba b. Mehasia also said in the name of Rabbi Hama b. Goria in Rab’s name: A man should never single out one son among his other sons, for on account of the two sela’s weight of silk, which Jacob gave Joseph in excess of his other sons, his brothers became jealous of him and the matter resulted in our forefathers’ descent into Egypt. (Shabbat 10b)

To this we may add what Rashi wrote in his commentary on the verse, “Joseph brought bad reports of them to their father” (Gen. 37:2): “Everything bad that he would see in his brothers, Leah’s sons, he would tell his father.” It turns out that this behavior, too, was influenced by the special attention Joseph received from his father, which in a certain sense made him lord it over his brothers so that he told his father about every bad thing he saw in them. This sort of behavior fanned the fires of his brothers’ jealousy and hatred.

In view of this, we must ponder the nature of this special love. Why did Israel love Joseph best of all his sons? What was there in Joseph that especially endeared him to his father? Scripture itself spells out the reason for this love: “for he was the child of his old age” (Gen. 37:3), and commentators further expand on the nature of and reasons for this love from several angles.

Nahmanides, in his commentary on the verse, writes:

Most likely, in my view, is that it was the custom of elders to take one of their younger children to be with them and serve them, the elder constantly leaning on him and keeping him at his side; and this child would be called the child of his old age because he waited on his father in his old age. Now Jacob took Joseph to this end kept him at his side, therefore he [Joseph] did not go off with the flocks when they were grazing far away.

The circumstance of Jacob taking Joseph to stay with him and wait on him in his old age is what created the special bond between them.

Continuing and filling out the line taken by Nahmanides, we must mention Targum Onkelos: “He was a son of wisdom,” which Rashi explains: “Everything that he [Jacob] had learned from Shem and Eber he passed on to him.” In view of Nahmanides’ remarks we may say that the special bond that developed between Jacob and Joseph was formed or made stronger as a result of Joseph being continually with his father.

The rishonim approach the question differently. They relate to the fact of Joseph being born in Jacob’s senior years, at the age of ninety-one. Ibn Ezra notes that Benjamin, too, was called a “child of his old age” (Gen. 44:20), but Nahmanides rejects this interpretation, arguing that Scripture wishes to explain the special love of Joseph, “best of all his sons.” In the writings of the rishonimthis is resolved in two ways. Rashbam writes that Joseph was the last of eleven sons, Benjamin being born only after a long gap in time. Thus Joseph was the “child of his old age” for many years before the birth of Benjamin, so that Jacob’s love had become fixed on him. Hizkuni points out another angle in this complex emotional relationship, noting that Jacob’s love of Benjamin was not as deeply rooted in him as his love of Joseph, because Benjamin’s mother had died giving birth to him.

Later commentators continued to delve into the nature of Jacob’s love of Joseph from other perspectives. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote:

In spite of the afore-mentioned weaknesses there was the making of a quite exceptional man in Joseph. Not Jacob, “Israel” saw in him the most excellent of his sons. Ben zekunim hu lo [“He was a child of his old age to him”], he saw himself living on in him, saw, in him, all the spiritual acquisitions he had made.[1]

The coat of many colors he sees as “a distinction which made him appear as one picked out for a special calling.” Accordingly, Jacob’s choosing Joseph was not a happenstance occurrence; Jacob saw Joseph as his spiritual heir, the one who would carry on his way, taking it to a higher plane. This raised their relations to another level, explaining Joseph’s special position.

The Kli Yakar maintains that Joseph, first-born son to his mother, became Jacob’s first-born and the one who would carry on after him when the rights of first-born were taken away from Reuben:

Thus it seems, that after Reuben defiled his father’s couch the right of first-born was taken from him and now was given to Joseph; that was why he made him a coat of many colors. For, ritual service was done by the first-borns, and the first-born was priest to El Elyon; therefore he made this coat as a mark of honor and glory, similar to the priestly vestments with their fringed tunic. Perhaps that is why it is said, “for he was the child of his old age,” as if it were he who was the elder and preeminent of all his sons.

In my experience dealing with families and from studies I have done in the field, I have discerned similar manifestations to those described by the commentators reviewed here. A frequent phenomenon, even in our days, is the special bond that develops specifically between parents and their younger children, who spend more time in close proximity to them. I have seen a marked manifestation of parents who have a close tie with one of their children and weaker ties with the rest of their offspring. In many instances, such parents are more “accepting” of the children whose moral inclinations are consistent with the moral values of the parents.

Mention should be made of the complex situations that can arise as a result: the healthy growth and development of those children is likely to suffer, among other things, from the absence of a figure that is critical of what they do and places demands on them. This, however, must be qualified by saying that these relations appear to take a turn for the better at a later stage in life.[2]

Other, deeper aspects that we have seen above also turn out to be relevant to our day. In my field work I encountered families in which the first-born did not follow in his father’s footsteps but did things that diverged from the desirable way, and as a response another son was “chosen” for the role of first-born.

As we mentioned, the Sages long ago cautioned against taking Jacob as a practical model of how to raise children, for Jacob acted according to divine guidance and his treatment of Joseph was entirely out of the broader picture of building the people of Israel. This attitude towards Joseph is evident in the broader view of Joseph’s position with respect to the people of Israel, as formulated in the Sanhedrin 19b:

Rabbi Eleazar says: It is inferred from the following: “By Your arm You redeemed Your people, the children of Jacob and Joseph” (Ps. 77:16). Did then Joseph beget them; surely it was rather Jacob? But Jacob begot and Joseph sustained them; therefore they are called by his name.

In this remark we see that Scripture itself enhances Joseph’s position to the point of calling the entire people of Israel the sons of Jacob and Joseph. True, this view of Joseph is on account of him being the one who “sustained” the Israelites in Egypt, nevertheless one cannot ignore the story of his dreams which were a foretelling of his future status and power, long before he became the one who “sustained” the people.

Joseph dreamed that the sun, moon and stars were bowing down to him, and in the midrash in Genesis Rabbah (84.11) we read: “When Joshua [bade the sun stand still, he] said: Evil servant!...Did not my ancestor see you thus in a dream: ‘the sun and the moon, [and eleven stars were bowing down to me]’? So shall you stand still before me! Forthwith, ‘And the sun stood still, and the moon halted’ (Josh. 10:13).” Joshua, from the tribe of Ephraim, Joseph’s son, used the power of his ancestor to make the sun subservient to him. Also the prophetess Deborah, a Judge in the highlands of Ephraim, said in the battle against Sisera: “The stars fought from heaven, from their courses they fought against Sisera” (Judges 5:20). She, too, mentioned the heavens and the stars, and the connection with Joseph’s dreams is inescapable.

In view of all this, it is clear that Jacob, instilled with the spirit of the Lord, understood that Joseph’s dreams contained an element of prophecy, as we see in the fulfillment of Joseph’s dream with respect to Jacob: “Then Israel bowed at the head of the bed” (Gen. 47:31). Jacob understood that the Holy One, blessed be He, by means of Joseph’s dreams, was guiding him to select Joseph as his spiritual heir and the leader of Israel, something which finds expression in the notion of the “Messiah son of Joseph,” a term which deserves greater attention, but not here.

We conclude with a quote from Hafetz Hayyim, viewing the story of Joseph and Jacob as indicative of a trend of Divine Providence which would find fuller expression in the future:

This parashah hints at the entire future of Israel. Joseph, the son who was dearest to Jacob of all his children, was forced to leave his father and the land of his birth in his prime years, was cast out to another land that was in the hands of a base nation, and every attempt was made to blot out his memory. But what became of him? Quite the contrary, everything that happened to him served to elevate him to the pinnacle of success, he sustained all the lands during the years of famine, and his brothers, who had sworn to torment him, themselves later came to bow down before him (Hafetz HayyimParashat Va-Yeshev).

May it be thus in the future for our poor and downtrodden nation. Then, when the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, every living being will see that all the hardship and suffering that was inflicted upon us in exile served only to bring us to Israel.  As Scripture attests (Isa. 12:1): “In that day, you shall say: ‘I give thanks to You, O Lord! Although You were wroth with me’”—for the wrathful fury that was spilled out on our people in their lands of dispersion was entirely for our own good.

Translated by Rachel Rowen

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