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Shabbat Vayehiy

Genesis 47:28 -50:26 - Favoritism

by Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

As we come to the end of the Book of Bereishit ( Genesis) we can look back and see a thread in the narrative of human beings grappling with the moral and spiritual challenges that we all face. And ideas we think of in modern terms such as guilt and favoritism are all interwoven into the text. All language changes over time. And when it comes to human psychology the vocabulary that we use today is as recent as the nineteenth century. Guilt goes back a long way earlier, but a guilty conscience was first used by Nietzsche. Much of the way we describe human behavior only goes back to Freud. The word favoritism is recent too, even though giving preference, features prominently in Bereishit.

Isaac loved Esau over Jacob. And if Jacob resented it, it did not stop him from preferring and favoring Joseph and Benjamin the two sons of his favorite wife Rachel. And this continues as he prefers Ephraim to Menashe. Before he dies Jacob blesses Ephraim and Menashe in a parallel to Isaac blessing him, instead of Esau. But when it comes to his twelve sons, he does not bless them. Instead, sometimes using puns, he says he will tell them about their futures. Not in the way we think of fortunetelling but rather in describing the sorts of characteristics and the contributions they will make towards the growth and success of the Children of Israel. More of a prediction than a blessing. And consider the contrast between the extensive compliments he pays to Judah and Joseph and the terse, comments he makes about the other brothers. Does this tell us something about his parental skills?

Was it because he recognized superior gifts in those two? Or was it a prediction that these two would become dominant and establish the two kingdoms of Judea, the House of David, and on the other hand Israel, the Ten Northern Tribes? Who despite Jacobs’ admiration and love for Joseph became the more pagan of the two? The argument seems to be that favoritism, encourages meritocracy over heredity. Neither Isaac nor Jacob nor Judah nor Joseph were firstborn. But as we see despite Jacob’s clear preference for them, the favorites did not necessarily produce winners. It may be human nature to favor the firstborn son. But the many examples of failing family businesses and political heirs attest when a firstborn or favorite is chosen to succeed instead of the better candidate.

The other theme is that of a guilty conscience. Conscience is a very modern idea, but the Torah gives several examples here. Jacob asks his son Joseph to make the arduous journey back to Canaan to bury him in the family tomb of the Cave of Machpelah where he buried Leah. But he had failed to bury Rachel there. Instead, he buried her in Beth Lechem only a short detour from his journey south. Now as he asks for a favor he felt guilty and needed to justify himself as he did in Genesis 48:7 and again in 49:30.

The brothers felt guilt not while they were selling Joseph, but only afterward when they thought they were being punished for their earlier misdeeds and deception. Even after Joseph forgave them and reassured them that it was all a divine plan, they still worried that after their father’s death, he might still want revenge. So despite the evidence that he had, they told him that their father had asked him to forgive them. Guilt spreads long tentacles even if it is in a person’s imagination.

All this is relevant today in the way we choose our leaders and our systems of governance. Do we look for intellectual brilliance, emotional intelligence, heredity, or combinations of all? Is there a perfect answer? Is there a perfect form of government appropriate everywhere? Would we really like to see a return to the monarchy or theocracy or a dictatorship? I think not. But there is no easy or single answer. This is why these themes are so significant.

The Torah is such a humane document. It records the struggles of imperfect human beings. Even so, the moral high ground is made as clear as it is to encourage us to try to recognize it even if we often fail to take it. The Talmud says, “The Torah was not given to (or for) angels.”

Sabbat Shalom



Jeremy Rosen was born in Manchester, England, the eldest son of Rabbi Kopul Rosen and Bella Rosen. Rosen's thinking was strongly influenced by his father, who rejected fundamentalist and obscurantist approaches in favour of being open to the best the secular world has to offer while remaining committed to religious life. He was first educated at Carmel College, the school his father had founded based on this philosophical orientation. At his father's direction, Rosen also studied at Be'er Yaakov Yeshiva in Israel (1957–1958 and 1960). He then went on to Merkaz Harav Kook (1961), and Mir Yeshiva (1965–1968) in Jerusalem, where he received semicha from Rabbi Chaim Leib Shmuelevitz in addition to Rabbi Dovid Povarsky of Ponevezh and Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Shapiro of Yeshivat Be'er Ya'akov. In between Rosen attended Cambridge University (1962–1965), graduating with a degree in Moral Sciences.


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