Last week we took a hard look at Yaakov Avinu and how he strived to perform all six hundred and thirteen mitzvot. This week we look at the other side of the coin, where Yaakov seems to perform one of the biggest mistakes in the book.

Yaakov has eleven sons but only one of them, Joseph, is from his beloved wife, Rachel. Six of them are from his not-so-beloved wife, Leah, and four of them are from his two maid-servants, Bilhah and Zilpah. The worst possible thing that Yaakov can do is to show Joseph any favouritism, so of course that’s exactly what he does [Bereishit 37:3]: “Yisrael loved Joseph more than all his sons because he was a son of his old age; and he made him a fine woollen coat.” People reading this story for the first time will be shocked at the reaction of Joseph’s brothers [Bereishit 37:4]: “His brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, so they hated him, and they could not speak with him peacefully.” Well that’s certainly a surprise! What did Yaakov expect they would do?

The Talmud in Tractate Shabbat [10b] learns a valuable lesson from this episode: “One should never show preference for one child above his other children, because for the sake of two selas weight of silk, which Yaakov bestowed on Joseph in preference to his other sons, the brothers became jealous of Joseph and this eventually brought about our ancestors’ migration into Egypt[1].” I’m sure he’ll never do that again! All kidding aside, Yaakov’s actions are incomprehensible and the fact that the Talmud feels it necessary to explicitly warn us against acting this way is all the more bizarre.

Much of the heavy lifting in this shiur will be done by the Netziv of Volozhn[2]. The Netziv, writing in the “Emek Davar”, notes a number of inconsistencies in our episode. One inconsistency we should notice is the name of the hero of the story. In the first verse of the story we are told that “Yaakov dwelt in the land of his father’s sojourning”. The second verse tells us that “These are the generations of Yaakov…” Yet in the third verse Yaakov’s name morphs: “Yisrael loved Joseph”. Recall that Yaakov Avinu had two names: Yaakov and Yisrael. While the Torah uses the two names interchangeably, is there something that we can learn from this particular switch?

The second inconsistency concerns the relationship of Joseph to his brothers. For example, I am simultaneously a father, a son, a husband, a brother, a grandfather, a nephew, and an uncle. When we first meet Joseph, he is described as a “brother” [Bereishit 37:2] “Joseph was seventeen years old… he was with his brothers with the flocks”. In the next verse, he becomes a “son”: “Yisrael loved Joseph more than all his sons.” And in the following verse he reverts back to a “brother”: “His brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers”. In each of these verses the words “brother” and “son” are equally suitable[3]. Why does the Torah switch back and forth?

The answers to both of these questions lie in the meanings of the names “Yaakov” and “Yisrael”. The name “Yaakov” comes from the word “trickery”. Esav tells Yaakov [Bereishit 27:36] “It is fitting that you are named ‘Yaakov’ as you have tricked me (“vaya’keveini”) twice”. The name “Yisrael”, on the other hand, comes from the word “Majesty”. After Yaakov defeats an angel in battle, the angel calls Yaakov “Yisrael”, telling him [Bereishit 32:29] “Because you have fought ably with kings”. Yaakov had a dual personality. On the one hand he was “Yaakov the Street Rat”, always knowing how to get what he needed. On the other hand, he was “Yaakov the King”, an honourable and majestic person, unafraid to demand what is rightfully his. It is “Yisrael” who loves Joseph more than his other sons. Yisrael is looking for a successor to lead a growing nation. Yisrael, as a father, knows his sons. He knows their strong points and he knows their weak points. He knows who is worthy and who is not. He knows who will make a good leader and who will not. Yisrael determines that it is Joseph who will succeed him. Yisrael chooses Joseph because he is a “son of his old age”. The wisdom and experience that Yisrael has acquired over his many years makes him choose Joseph over his brothers[4]. Yaakov gives Joseph the Technicolour Dream Coat as part of Joseph’s future royal uniform. This is no act of favouritism. It is an act of choosing a successor. The problem is that Joseph’s brothers don’t see it that way. They are not looking at Joseph’s relationship vis-à-vis his father. They do not see Yaakov’s son. They are looking at his relationship vis-à-vis themselves. They see their own brother, ostensibly their equal, perhaps not even that. They do not see majesty. All they see is discrimination, and it makes them green with envy.

Yisrael is eventually proven correct in his choice of a successor: Joseph is exiled to Egypt as a slave but he eventually undergoes a meteoric rise to power. He manages his power, and he uses it to bring his family to safety to Egypt. While the rest of the world is forced to their knees by the famine, Yaakov’s family –Yisrael’s family – live comfortably in Egypt as guests of the Grand Vizier. So at the end of the day, Yaakov’s giving the Technicolour Dream Coat to Joseph is actually an example of tough love, as far as his other sons were concerned. Why should the Talmud recommend against showing tough love?

Let’s look at the Talmud in its context. The Talmud’s advice not to show favour to one child is preceded by the following story: “Rav Hisda held two gifts from the [succulent] meat of an ox and said: ‘I will give these to the person who can tell me some new teaching in the name of Rav.’ Rava bar Mehassia told him ‘Rav taught: He who bestows a gift on a friend should let him know it[5].’ Rav Hisda [was so happy to hear this titbit from Rav that he] gave Rava bar Mehassia both pieces of meat. [Rava bar Mehassia] asked him: ‘Are you that fond of the teachings of Rav?’ ‘Yes,’ he answered. [Rava bar Mehassia] said: ‘This is like that which Rav said: A silk garment is precious to the wearer.’ [When] R. Hisda [heard this he said]: ‘Did Rav say this, too? This second teaching is even better than the first! If I had more gifts I would give them to you as well!” Rav Hisda was a student of Rav, and he would collect vignettes about his beloved Rebbe. To him they were priceless. Rava bar Mehassia tells him that “a silk garment is precious to the wearer”, he means that Rav Hisda treats Rav’s vignettes with such passion because he was a long-time student of Rav. The parallel between the Rav Hisda’s “silk garment” and Joseph’s coat made of “two selas weight of silk” is too obvious to ignore: Yaakov gave Joseph the coat because only he, as the future ruler, would appreciate it. What, then, is the Talmud’s problem?

The sixteenth chapter of the Book of Samuel I tells the story Hashem taking the monarchy away from Saul and giving it to David. When Hashem tells Samuel to anoint David as King Samuel is aghast. He is certain that Saul will discover what he has done and will kill him for it. Hashem does not tell Saul “Don’t worry; I’ll take care of you”. Hashem concocts a ruse in which Saul goes to David’s home in Bethlehem ostensibly to offer a sacrifice. David is secretly anointed and no-one is the wiser. When the Talmud says “He who bestows a gift on a friend should let him know it”, it means that only the friend needs to know it. Yisrael was correct in giving Joseph the coat, as Joseph was destined to lead his nation. But had Yisrael given the coat to Joseph quietly, and had Joseph kept the coat in his closet until he needed it, then our history as a nation might have been completely different.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5776

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Moshe Dov ben Malka, Yechiel ben Shprintza, and Shaul Chaim ben Tziviya

[1] Joseph’s brothers eventually sold him into slavery which, in turn, leads to the Egyptian exile.

[2] I have taken certain liberties with the Netziv’s explanation. I recommend looking at the Netziv ad loc.

[3] For instance, in Verse 2 the Torah could have written “These are the generations of Yaakov… [Joseph] was with [Yaakov’s] sons with the flocks”.

[4] Years later King David chooses his son, Solomon, as his successor, over the objections of his son Adoniah. Adoniah acts as if he has been chosen king, and only when David explicitly says that Solomon will succeed him is Adoniah’s attempted coup put down.

[5] As opposed to leaving the gift anonymously on his doorstep.