Parshat VaYechi is the slow denouement of Breishit. The crisis among the brothers is resolved, and the family is safe from famine in Egypt. The parsha focuses on less dramatic events: the deaths of Jacob and Joseph, and the messages they convey before they go.
As I imagine the scene of Jacob surrounded by his children on his deathbed, I wonder how to assess him as a parent. On the one hand, anyone who has successfully kept a family of thirteen children (actually we don’t know if Dina was there, but I’ll assume she was) together and has them all gathered around him as he blesses them, has realized a parent’s dream. On the other hand, it was Jacob’s favouritism towards Joseph that caused the family rift in the first place. Sibling rivalry is as old as Cain and Abel – the first siblings – and when exacerbated by parental preference it can be deadly.
It seems that Jacob’s favouritism continues to his death day. His final words to his children are far from equally meted out. He gives the double portion of the primogeniture to Joseph, the old favourite, and the staff of leadership to Judah, the fourth born. Reuben, Simeon and Levi’s messages seem more castigation than blessings.
One of the great challenges of parenthood is how to see each child’s uniqueness, and individual needs, while not showing favouritism of one towards the other. The first step is to see one’s children as unique personalities. However, at that point it is difficult to react appropriately to those unique traits. It is natural to want to protect the sensitive child, to challenge the intelligent child, or to boast about the accomplished child.
Beyond the general traits, there are the ones that touch us deeply. One child will remind us of a beloved relative, or of what made us fall in love with our spouse in the first place. In another we will see a reflection of our own best, or worst, traits. These connections will awaken deep reactions in ourselves as human beings, but can be dangerous in our role as parents.
Parenting each child according to his or her unique needs, while not showing favouritism, or even having the children perceive favouritism, is a difficult task. I sometimes feel like we must be doing something right because each of our children sometimes express a feeling that we favour one or more of the others. Since they all feel that way, we must be somewhat balanced. However, wouldn’t it be better if none ever felt less favoured? I wish I knew how to accomplish that.
Jacob shows through his final message, that he knew each of his sons deeply. Some needed rebuke and others a more positive message, and Jacob looked deep into their hearts and knew what needed to be said. It is not clear if he succeeded late in life where he had failed earlier – in giving each the feeling that they were equally loved in his eyes, even as he saw each of them clearly, strengths and weaknesses.
In the end, as destructive as favouritism can be, ignoring the uniqueness of our children is worse. Deep connection is based on being seen, and allowing oneself to be seen. If we want to connect tour children we need to see the people in front of us, with all their individual beauty and power, their fears and weaknesses and their potential. If we succeed, on top of that, in expressing unconditional love for them all, letting them know that our love for them is not dependent on them living up to some ideal for us, then we can avoid the pitfalls of favouritism. It isn’t easy, though.
Parenting is the greatest challenge any us take on. May we learn from Jacob to see our children in their uniqueness and individuality. I like to think that, in those final moments around his deathbed, the children of Israel felt the encompassing love of their father that allowed him to see them for who they were, each in his own way.