I’m two degrees of separation from Prince William. I know that sounds very cool, but it isn’t really. It’s actually quite challenging. You see, one of the prince’s passions is mental health advocacy. Yasher koach to two incredible women that I admire: Zoe Sinclair and Dr. Ellie Cannon, two individuals who serve alongside Prince William in their quest to help those with mental health issues. Research shows that there’s an increase in mental health issues specifically with teenagers. While there are various reasons pointing to the increase, much is due to the effects of social media, cyberbullying, feeling of isolation due to phone activity. All these things affect their mental state. What can we do to help the situation?
In Parshat Vayeshev, we read, “Now Israel loved Joseph best of all his sons, for he was the child of his old age; and he had made him a ketonet passim (ornamented coat).”
How could that be? How could Yaakov (Israel), knowing the pain that he felt when favouritism was shown to his brother Esav, favour one son over another?
Furthermore, the Talmud (Shabbos 10b) states that the reason we descended to Eygpt was because of the favouritism shown. We shouldn’t show different behaviour to our children, because Yaakov gave a special coat to Yosef that caused his brothers to hate him and then sell him, eventually leading to our enslavement in Egypt.
So what was so special about this coat? What was the ketonet passim? The word ‘passim’ is a hapax legomenon – this is the only place that this word appears. So how do we know what it means?
Rashi says it’s a coloured coat like the word in Megillat Esther, “chur karpas,” meaning some sort of blue or purple linen. That’s how Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice knew it was a coloured coat!
Actually, the word ‘passim’ literally translates as the ‘palms’ of one’s hands. What’s the connection to Yosef’s coat? The Midrash (B”R 84) offers five explanations. Three of the translations state that the word foreshadows future events such as ‘Pas Yam’ – palm of the sea – referring to the splitting of the sea, the culmination of our redemption from Egypt. Another reason is what most of learn in primary school of how special the coat was – it was a beautiful material, so fine that it was pliable into the palm of your hands (thereby causing the jealously of the brothers).
The fifth explanation is that the coat sleeves hung down all the way over the palm of his hand. What does that mean? What is the Midrash trying to teach us here? Why would Yaakov have given Yosef an oversized coat?
If we take a look back at the verse, we read, “Yaakov ahav et Yosef mikol banav,” – Yaakov loved (ahav) Yosef more than all his sons. That’s the literal translation. However, our Sages teach that ‘ahav’ is related to the word ‘hav’ meaning to give (since the more you invest in a relationship, the more you will become emotionally attached to that person). What did Yaakov give Yosef ‘more than all his sons’? Yaakov gave Yosef the coat – this oversized coat. Why would he give him an oversized garment?
If we look back at the introduction to the story, we find one of the only times in the Torah (apart from when people are dying or giving birth!) when age is mentioned: “Yosef was seventeen years old.” The Midrash is teaching us that the coat was oversized because Yosef was younger than Yaakov’s other sons. If you think about it, Binyomin was actually the ‘child of Yaakov’s old age.’ Why didn’t Yaakov give him a special coat? Because he was a baby and wasn’t even part of the conversation. Yosef, however, was teenager. No longer a child, but not quite an adult.
Why did Yaakov give Yosef more than the others? Because he was the younger lad and needed extra attention so that the older brothers wouldn’t leave him out. From his perspective, he wasn’t loving him more than the others. He was simply giving him what he needed to make him equal to the other brothers!
Yaakov loved Yosef as much as his other sons. He wanted to include him in with the big boys. But what he didn’t to take into account was the feeling of his other sons. The brothers saw Yosef as a child and now it seemed like their father was giving him more attention. What’s even more interesting is what the Netziv (Haamek Davar) points out. Look at the difference in the text when it refers to Yaakov loving his son in comparison to the response of the brothers. Yaakov loved Yosef ‘more than his sons,’ but they perceived the love he demonstrated as ‘more than his brothers.’ What Yaakov tried to avoid by making all his children equal, actually backfired.
Each child needs different things at different stages of their lives. Yaakov tried hard to AVOID showing favouritism because he learned from history – he didn’t want his sons to feel what he felt. But what we need to make sure is that it’s not about favouritism but about what each child needs, based on their character and the specific stage of their lives. A seventeen-year old is still a child. Dressing them up in adult’s clothes doesn’t make them an adult.
In fact, Yaakov so much saw Yosef as an adult that he even allowed him to wander into the wilderness all alone. He sends him to find his brothers who were off shepherding. In what appears to be an irrelevant detail, the young lad finds a stranger and asks for directions. What’s the Torah teaching us? That Yosef was still a child and that Yaakov should have been directing him. Not sending him off to be guided by strangers.
The world our children have been born into is much more dangerous than the one we grew up in. Not because they might be kidnapped in the local park. The dangers they encounter in the comfort of their own bedrooms is far scarier. Do you know who they’re interacting with online? Which strangers are giving them direction?
We assume that if we let them do adult things, they’ll become adults. But it doesn’t work like that. You don’t just throw a big coat over your kid and hope they’ll grow into it. And yet that’s what we’re doing to our children. We throw them in with social media, throw them into the deep end, and think they are ready for the big world.
Your child might look like an adult. They might sound like an adult. But they’re only a child. We don’t let our 17-year-olds drink, we don’t let them smoke, so why would we allow them to engage in far more dangerous activities online and beyond? Your job is to make sure you are communicating with your teenager, directing them, guiding them, and to recognize the stage of life that they are in. Always shower them with your love, let them know that they are incredibly special and that they will have their time to be an adult at the right time. When we do that, we might not be able to solve the mental health crisis, but we will go a long towards helping our children make the right decisions.