Why Yaakov Favored Yosef

Rabbi Reuven Mann

The Parshiot pertaining to the extended story of Joseph and his brothers are the most gut wrenching and down to earth narratives, in the entire Torah. The accounts are gripping, and engage the student, in a manner which is not common to other Biblical subjects.

So many of us, can identify with Yosef, the favored son, who seemingly could do no wrong in the eyes of his father. He appears to have been bent on winning his father over to his side, by bringing back “evil reports” about the doings of his siblings; an activity, which will never win any prizes for popularity.

We are astounded at Yaakov’s passivity in this matter. Isn’t there supposed to be some fatherly rebuke? Yet Yaakov, seems to display great tolerance for Yosef’s wrongdoings; apparently unconcerned about the dangerous rift, that was developing between him and his brothers.

As if that wasn’t enough, Yaakov goes ahead and commits the worst mistake a parent can make. “And Yisrael loved Yosef more than all of his sons, and he made for him a coat of many colors.” The response of the brothers should have been easily predictable; “And the brothers saw that their father loved him from all his sons, and they hated him, and they could not speak peacefully with him.”

The Rabbis derive from this, that it is never acceptable to display any type of favoritism, to one child over another; and the same should apply to teachers, coaches and all those in positions of authority over others. Nothing causes demoralization and dissension, more than the feeling that some are unfairly entitled to “special treatment”.

So, to a very large extent, blame for the subsequent mistreatment of Yosef by his brothers, must be laid at the doorstep of his loving father, Yaakov. His “sins” were of omission and commission. He failed to discipline Yosef, for his wrongful habit of being a snitch on his brothers. And he actively, though unintentionally, promoted resentment, by (apparently) indulging his favoritism in a blatant and demonstrable manner. How are we to understand the disconcerting actions of Yaakov?

The seemingly strange parenting of Yaakov, must be seen in the context of the entire story. At the time of Yosef’s interactions with his brothers, he was only seventeen. “These are the offspring of Yaakov, when Yosef was seventeen he shepherded the sheep with his brothers but he was youthful and was with the children of Bilhah and Zilpah the wives of his father, and Yosef brought bad reports about them to his father.” (Bereishis 37:2)

Sforno points out, that even though Yosef was highly intellectually developed, he still lacked the habit of carefully calculating the consequences of his actions. Yosef, was no ordinary person. He had a prodigious intellect, which enabled his father to share with him, the most advanced teachings of the school of Shem and Ever; and to have genuine prophetic dreams. However, there was a gap between his intellectual and emotional development. The verse attests that he was a “naar,” i.e. childish. (After telling us that he was seventeen, there would be no need to mention that he was young. Thus, the term naar, must be understood in its more derogatory sense. See Rashi on this expression).

The entire “dispute”–between Yaakov and his sons–about the character of Yosef, revolved around this point. Was his current inappropriateness, an indicator of a basically corrupt personality, who sought glory and power, at the expense of others; or was this just a temporary manifestation of “youthful craziness”, which he would outgrow with the onset of maturity?

Evidence, that this was the point of contention, can be seen from the rebuke that Reuven delivered to his brothers; when they were first accused of being spies, and placed in detention by Yosef in Egypt. Suddenly, they were smitten with remorse, over what they had done to Yosef so many years before. “The men said to one another, ‘we are guilty concerning our brother in that we saw the suffering of his soul, when he pleaded with us but we did not listen; therefore has this calamity come upon us.” (Bereishis 42:21)

The brothers, had not acknowledged that their assessment of Yosef was wrong, only that they had lacked the element of mercy in condemning him. Reuven, who had opposed the brothers judgement of Yosef, now chimed in. “Reuven responded to them saying, ‘Did I not say to you, do not sin against the lad but you did not listen; and now his blood is being demanded.’” (Bereishis 42:22)

Rabbi Israel Chait explained, that Reuven was recounting–what his argument had been–when he defended Yosef, against the brothers harsh judgement. The key word in his statement, is “naar” (lad). Reuven had argued, that Yosef was essentially decent, but his inappropriate behaviors could be attributed to his “youthful craziness“.

I believe, that Yaakov viewed the situation this way; and this is the key to resolving the questions we have raised, regarding his parenting. For Yaakov, alone, recognized the true greatness of Yosef, and that he was destined to be the next leader of the Abrahamic movement.

This explains, why he did not rebuke Yosef, for the evil reports that he brought. He recognized, that rebuke from his father, could be harmful; and possibly put a damper on his continued growth. He knew that at bottom, Yosef was a Tzadik, and with maturity would outgrow these childish habits.

On a personal note, I want to add that as a Rebbe of advanced students for fifty years, I have encountered many who were especially brilliant, and could have become Gedolei HaDor (leaders of the generation); but had been stifled by overly harsh parental discipline. Unfortunately, they never realized their full potential; because they lacked the basic self-confidence essential to success.

But what prompted Yaakov to favor Yosef with the special garment? Was he unaware of the great dangers of singling out one child for special recognition? Rambam writes, in Hilchot Deot 3:3, that when engaged in procreation, one should have in mind, that “he may have a son, and perhaps he will be a Chacham (wise individual), and a (Torah) giant, in Israel.”

In my opinion, Yaakov raised Yosef with this consideration in mind. He realized, how vital it was to convey his approval to him, and to elevate his sense of confidence in his own capabilities. Yosef, was not “just another child”, but someone special and unique, indeed a national treasure.

Bear in mind, that Yosef was also an orphan, whose mother, Rachel, died when has was very young; and clearly, did not have the friendship and support of his siblings. Yaakov felt, that he must increase his love for Yosef, and do something; which demonstrated his endorsement of his character and wisdom. For he, was his prized prodigious student, who was capable of understanding the advanced metaphysical teachings, of the academy of Shem and Ever.

But what about the danger, of instilling jealousy among the siblings? I believe, that Yaakov felt that the brothers, who had each other, were themselves on a high level; and would be able to accept it and overcome their petty resentments. But there is a deeper point here. Again, this is just my opinion, but I believe, that Yaakov regarded the necessity of raising a Gadol BeYisrael, as overriding the possible emotional fallout. Faced with the choice, of facilitating the emergence of a Torah giant, and causing the brothers to experience some envy, he chose the former.

Yaakov, generally comes in for harsh criticism, because of his display of parental favoritism; but I believe it is mistaken. In my opinion, that coat was responsible for saving the Jewish People. That is because the great mystery of the story focuses around Yosef’s inexplicable rise from obscurity to supreme power. How can someone, who has experienced the most harsh and heartless treatment from his own flesh and blood, manage not to be crushed by it? From whence can this person draw the inner reserves of confidence and determination to rule, virtually by himself, a great country? And to shepherd it through the severe national calamity of an extended famine which could have brought the nation down to its knees?

Yosef, seemed to be unscathed, by the torments to which he had been subjected. He was unbroken by the mistreatment. He emerged, neither depressed nor lacking in self-confidence. His talent, at managing the affairs of Potiphar, garnered promotion after promotion; until he had absolute control over his household.

In my opinion, Yosef derived his strength, from the unequivocal endorsement of his father. His conviction, that Yaakov believed in him, stayed with him throughout the darkest moments of his ordeal; and enabled him to remain assured in his own judgement, and be optimistic that he could still succeed. Ramban points out that in taking the risk of interpreting the dreams of the the Butler and the Baker (had his predictions been  wrong imagine the consequences) Yosef was batuach b’chachmato (confident in his wisdom).

Indeed, Yosef’s remembrance of his father, played a role in enabling him to withstand the seductions of Potiphar’s wife. The verse states, in Bereishis 39:11, “There was an opportune day, when he entered the house to do his work…” And Rashi comments; “This is a dispute between Rav and Shmuel, one says, his actual work, and one says to do his work with her, but he suddenly saw the image of his father (and refrained from sinning).” Yosef knew, he would lose Yaakov’s approval, if he were to violate the Torah; and this provided the inner resolve, to abstain.

Let us remember, that after the sale of Yosef, the Tribes of Hashem–who were destined to become the Jewish People–had been torn asunder. There was no great leader, who had the ability to mend the breach and restore unity to the family. Yaakov, was now out of the picture; as he fell into a permanent state of mourning, because of the loss, of his most beloved son.

And Yehuda, separated himself from his brothers, at that point; because, as Rashi indicates, the brothers, after seeing the devastating effect of Yosef’s loss on their father, now blamed Yehuda, for not preventing them from doing it. There was then, no leader out there, who could effectuate a family reconciliation and reunion…except for Yosef HaTzadik, who had outgrown all of his childish proclivities, and now desired nothing more than to forgive and reconcile with his brothers. He had overcome all his challenges, and risen to true greatness. This was possible, because his self-esteem was never broken, by the indignities that were visited on him. The unbounded love of Yaakov, was essential in protecting his inherent sense of worthiness; which enabled him to be the instrument of the “great salvation”, which preserved Klal Yisrael. In that sense, we can say, that the coat of many colors, was responsible for saving the Jewish People.

Shabbat Shalom.