This week’s Torah portion begins with the episode detailing the intense jealousy among Jacob’s twelve children.
This week’s Torah portion begins with the episode detailing the intense jealousy among Jacob’s twelve children. One of the first verses in no uncertain terms summarizes the situation: "His brothers saw that it was [Joseph] whom their father loved more than all of his brothers, so they hated him" (Genesis 37:4).
Upon reading the second half of the verse, one may be bothered by the repetition of the word "brothers." Since the brothers are the subject of the verse, it would be more grammatically correct to state that their father loved Joseph more than all of them. Certainly, the departure from normal grammatical rules highlights an important lesson that we can learn from this episode.
The simple meaning of the above verse indicates that the brothers were upset because Joseph received favored treatment and additional love from their father Jacob. The Torah clearly explains the rationale for Jacob loving Joseph more than all of his other children: --[Joseph] was the child of [Jacob’s] old age." He therefore felt a greater affection for him.
The brothers, on the other hand, were convinced that Jacob favored Joseph because he was the first son of Rachel, whom Jacob loved more than his other wives. As Jacob continued to favor Joseph, the brothers feared that Jacob would elevate Joseph’s status to be considered the firstborn of the entire family, thus entitling him to all of the rights and privileges which accompany firstborn status. The brothers’ suspicion of Joseph was confirmed when he described his dreams which depicted the other brothers as being subservient to him. From their perspective, Joseph was a power-hungry younger brother wrongly proclaiming himself to be the firstborn and leader of all the brothers.
According to Rabbi Ben Zion Firer, a contemporary Torah scholar in Israel, the brothers were well aware of Jacob’s reasoning for favoring Joseph. They recognized and even understood that it arose as a result of Jacob’s senior age at Joseph’s birth. However, they questioned this reason because Joseph was not the youngest son; Benjamin was born long after Joseph. Following Jacob’s rationale of favoring a child born to him at a later stage in his life, the favorite child should have been Benjamin. Therefore, the verse quoted above states "more than all of his brothers" to indicate that the brothers clearly saw that Jacob loved Joseph even more than Benjamin. Because Benjamin was not with them at the time and was not a part of the subject of the sentence, Benjamin therefore would not have been included if the verse had simply written "them."
Rabbi Firer also offers an explanation as to why Benjamin did not receive the same favoritism as Joseph. As we read in last week’s Torah portion, Rachel died immediately after giving birth to Benjamin. Indeed, Rachel called Benjamin "Ben oni--the son of my sorrow" (Genesis 35:17). As a result, Jacob could not treat Benjamin with the same enthusiastic manner as he did Joseph. Although Benjamin clearly could not be blamed for Rachel’s death, and despite Jacob’s great love for his youngest son, he could not give Benjamin the same kind of preferential treatment that he bestowed upon Joseph. Instead he favored Joseph, the eldest of Rachel’s two children.
The strife between Jacob’s sons almost led to Joseph’s murder at the hands of his own brothers. Because the brothers allowed their emotional fears to overcome objective logic, they jumped to the wrong conclusion. Even worse, the brothers incorrectly believed that their desire to kill Joseph was justified.
From this episode we see how easy it is to be swayed by our emotions when confronting moral decisions. This is a weakness that many of us share. As human beings we cannot help but apply our subjective views on objective matters. Our emotions influence the way we study and interpret the Torah, our approach to Hashem, and the way in which we handle relationships with our friends. Although we cannot, and should not, eliminate our emotional inclinations when confronting objective situations, we should certainly be aware of the forces that drive us and try to channel them in a manner that allows us to make the correct choices.
Eyal Feiler, an alumnus of Yeshiva Atlanta and a graduate of Yeshiva University, writes from New York.
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