May a Parent Have Favorites?

Rabbi Reuven Mann

This week's parsha, Vayeshev, contains some of the most significant themes of human life, i.e.  parental favoritism, sibling rivalry, attempted murder, enslavement, etc.  The most perplexing issue is the depth of the brothers' envy and hatred of their brother Joseph.  We can understand why they would resent him but the challenge is to comprehend why they were so upset with him that they were on the verge of killing him.  It is clear that Yaakov inadvertently contributed to the problem.  He displayed favoritism by making Joseph a special "coat of many colors."  The Rabbis derive from this that one should never single out a sibling for special treatment as this will inevitably lead to jealousy and anger.  There is an important lesson to be learned here.  Parents, grandparents, teachers, Rabbis, etc. must be cognizant of the power of the emotion of jealousy.  However, it seems unreasonable to expect anyone to feel the same way about everyone.  Are we required to love all our children and grandchildren equally?  Must a teacher or Rabbi have the same feelings for all his students and congregants?

In my opinion the Torah does not demand that we have the identical feelings for all our children, or others over whom we exercise some authority.  Such a requirement would be contrary to human nature.  Each person has his own preferences and it is inevitable that we will like some people and dislike others.  It is entirely possible that one may "dislike" a child, a sibling, a parent, or grandparent.  The Torah points out that Yitzchak loved Eisav but Rivka loved Yaakov.  She was suspicious of Eisav's behavior and did not love him.  I believe that we are entitled to our feelings and have the right to like those whom we find "likeable" and to not love those whom we regard as disagreeable.  Of course one's feelings about others should not be based on arbitrary, superficial criteria but on the real characteristics of the person.  Thus I believe that Yaakov was not at fault for "loving Joseph more than all his sons because he was his Ben Zekunim" (which literally means child of old age - but also contains the idea of wisdom).  Joseph was the most intellectually gifted of Yaakov's children and he could thus transmit to him the deepest idea of his religious masorah (heritage).  The emotional and intellectual bond to Joseph was very powerful and Yaakov could do nothing from preventing the intense feeling of love from emerging.  The Torah is not faulting Yaakov for "loving Joseph more than his other children."  However, the verse concludes "and he made him a coat of many colors."  He is permitted to have a favorite but only if he keeps it to himself and does not display it.  The mistake of Yaakov was his failure to be cognizant of the impact that his special treatment of Joseph would have on his siblings.  The lesson for us is that we have a right to our feelings but do not have permission to display them in a manner which will cause pain to others and eventually resentment and jealously of the one that we favor.

Shabbat Shalom