There are twelve Torah portions in the book of Genesis.  The last four of them (about one third of the book) are mainly the story of Joseph – the favored son of the aging Jacob and his beloved, late wife Rachel.  Jacob loved Joseph more than all his sons, even more than the younger Benjamin.  Because of this favoritism, and Joseph’s habit of telling his father about any misbehavior by his brothers, they hated him and could not speak to him in peace (see Genesis 37:2-4).  The Talmud (Shabbat 10b) uses this story to teach that a parent should not single out a child.  It is evident, however, that the Torah considers such favoritism as a natural, though not necessarily desirable, attitude: Abraham preferred Isaac over Ishmael, Isaac liked Esau while his wife, Rebecca, preferred his twin brother Jacob and here Jacob favors Joseph.  At the same time, the consequences of these attitudes are always severe: Ishmael was expelled to become a separate Semitic nation, Esau was alienated and ultimately moved away to become Edom and Joseph was sold by his brothers to become a slave in Egypt.


In the Biblical stories these sibling rivalries have their own Divine destinies, within the larger scheme of national evolution.  Thus, some commentaries and Kabalistic texts explain and justify these behaviors by Abraham, Isaac-Rebecca and Jacob, on the basis of their spiritual foresight, as history can attest in hindsight.  In this context, the teaching of the Talmud is not in contradiction with their conduct; theirs was the exception.


Joseph was seventeen years old when his brothers sold him.  He became a slave, was accused of a crime that he did not commit, spent years in jail – the classical story of a spoiled youngster who lost his cushioned world and had all the reasons to be consumed by bitterness and rage.  And now, more than twenty years later, after all his sufferings, those brothers are in front of him, in Egypt, begging for mercy.  Joseph is empowered by Pharaoh and has his opportunity for revenge, but he says to his brothers: “You did not send me here, but God” who “sent me ahead of you” to provide for life and survival through this long drought (see Exodus 45:5-8).  Joseph was unique, because he could see the larger picture, the Divine plan.


We may not understand all the ways of God, the unfolding of events in the long run, the time scale of generations beyond us.  That does not mean that the plan does not exist.  If we attempt to see the larger picture, with faith, we can elevate ourselves to higher levels of optimism and trust.  Just as Abraham did, for a covenant that took about 400 years to materialize, and as Joseph did through his years of exile.  These special people, the optimists, are the true role models to follow.

Judah Ari-Gur



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