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by Michael D. Gros    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

One of the gravest sins a parent can commit is to favor one child over another. Doing so can lead to jealousy and ill feelings that can plague a family for years to come.



One of the gravest sins a parent can commit is to favor one child over another. Doing so can lead to jealousy and ill feelings that can plague a family for years to come.

If favoring one child over another is such a strong crime, why do we see Jacob doing just that in this week's Torah portion? We place our forefathers on pedestals, and deduce important moral lessons from even their most seemingly insignificant actions. One must wonder, therefore, why did Jacob favor his son Joseph over his other sons? Were there any justifications for his actions?

Rabbi Dovid Kamenetsky of Yeshivat Darche Noam/Shapell's College answers these questions, based in part on the teachings of his grandfather, Rav Jacob Kamenetsky of blessed memory. It is necessary to look at an underlying theme running through several recent Torah portions. We know that each of our forefathers had a different underlying trait, and each had a different path of Torah. Abraham was known for being a man of kindness and outreach. He was truly immersed in the world and spent every day interacting with other, often unsavory, people. But before he immersed himself as an observant Jew in the world, he needed to gain guidance and learn the rules that would guide his behavior.

Abraham learned these lessons by studying in the yeshiva of Shem and Eber (Noah's son and grandson). They had lived in two of the most immoral generations and through two of the most disastrous events in world history: Shem had lived through the flood, and both Shem and Eber had lived through the dispersal of humanity after the Tower of Babel. Through these catastrophes, Shem and Eber gained an unrivaled understanding of how to survive adversity. Abraham decided to learn from them because he knew that they were uniquely qualified to teach him the skills and wisdom he needed to survive in the chaotic and corrupt world that he faced daily.

Isaac was known for different characteristics. He was a man who never left the study hall, nor left the holy confines of the land of Israel. His Torah study was geared for his particular lifestyle. Because he was not immersed in the world like his father was, he did not need to learn the practical life lessons from Shem and Eber.

This explanation can help shed light on another question. The sages teach that while Rebecca was pregnant with Jacob and Esau, she felt two forces fighting inside her womb. Whenever she walked past a study hall, one force (Jacob) tried to get out, and whenever she walked past a place of idol worship, the other force (Esau) tried to get out. Rebecca was, of course, befuddled by this. Why would her unborn child desire both the heavenly pursuits of Torah and the worldly pursuits of idol worship?

Rebecca sought out a prophet to answer this question. We would have assumed that she would ask her husband Isaac, but instead she went to the yeshiva of Shem and Eber. Why did she not ask Isaac? Rebecca knew that one of the forces in her womb desired earthly pursuits, and in order to control these desires, she needed to consult with someone who knew the ways of the world. Isaac was removed from the outside world, and so Rebecca went directly to Shem and Eber. From them she learned crucial lessons to guide her sons through the challenges of everyday life.

Now on to Jacob. The Torah teaches that Jacob was a man who dwelled in tents (Genesis 25:27). On this verse Rashi, the preeminent Torah commentator, says that Jacob dwelled in the tents of Shem and Eber. Thus, the lessons that guided his grandfather Abraham and that helped his mother also guided his life.

The sages teach that when Jacob left his parents and traveled to live with his uncle Laban, he spent fourteen years studying in the yeshiva of Shem and Eber. Why did he do this? Jacob knew that Laban's house, a place full of dishonesty and deceit, would have the potential to corrupt him. It was essential for Jacob to first receive guidance from Shem and Eber, in order to know how to deal with Laban's negative influences.

How does this help us answer our original question? Why did Jacob favor his son Joseph? Jacob knew through prophecy that Joseph would live alone in Egypt for many years (though Jacob did not know when this would happen.) In order for Joseph to survive as a observant Jew in the harsh amoral climate of Egypt, he needed to gain the practical life lessons that Jacob had learned from Shem and Eber. Though all of Jacob's sons would eventually live in Egypt, Joseph was the only one who would be there alone, without the support structure of a Jewish society and places of learning. Therefore, Jacob spent extra time instructing Joseph in the lessons that he had learned from Shem and Eber.

The extra time Jacob spent with Joseph had a noble purpose, and consequently his actions were completely justified. As King Solomon wrote: "Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it" (Proverbs 22:6). Jacob knew that Joseph would be in a dangerous environment, but he also knew that the guidance of Shem and Eber, which had helped Jacob and his grandfather Abraham, would also help Joseph.


This d'var torah is dedicated to Dr. Perry Brickman and his family. Abraham, Jacob, and Joseph's Torah study in Israel prepared them for the challenges of living outside the Holy Land. I am very fortunate that I had this same experience, getting to spend two years learning in yeshiva in Israel, enabled in part by Dr. Brickman's financial assistance.

Michael D. Gros, an alumnus of Emory University, is a writer and editor living in New York with his wife.

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