Enslaved in Parental Lack of Attention and Brotherly Jealousy
When I was 13 or 14 years old, I really wanted to have a pair of Wrangler jeans. However, my parents thought they were relatively expensive, so they would buy me pairs of other, cheaper brands instead. Then they would spend the money thus saved to send me to an additional summer camp or to pay for my foreign language classes. Today I’m grateful that my education was a priority for them. However, as a teenager I saw it differently. I truly envied some of my classmates who owned such designer jeans. It seemed to me that they would respect me more if I also had such a pair of jeans. As time passed – and also due to the fact that I’ve had a chance to buy myself designer jeans (thanks to which I know that wearing them did not magically make my life better) I forgot about how jealous I was of my classmates who wore Wranglers. But I was reminded of this feeling as I was reading this week’s Torah portion Vayeshev, which tells the story of Jacob-Israel’s approach towards his twelve sons. It is described as follows:
Now Israel loved Joseph best of all his sons, for he was the child of his old age; and he had made him an ornamented tunic. And when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of his brothers, they hated him so that they could not speak a friendly word to him. (Genesis 37:3-4.)
Joseph, just like my classmates, wore clothes which served as a symbol of social status and which could turn into a coveted object, or even into an object of envy. The underlying source of these feelings was the need to feel accepted and recognized. As a teenager I personally wanted to be part of a “cool” group, and the pair of jeans was in fact only of secondary importance to me. And Joseph’s brothers were not actually jealous of his ornamented tunic, but of what that tunic symbolized – the recognition and love of Israel.
My need to find a group of school friends was fulfilled; with time I did find friends with whom I shared a hobby and who did not care about designer clothes. The need to feel accepted and to feel like you belong is much more difficult to fulfill when it is associated with long-lasting relationships, especially within one’s family. As parents bring up their children, it is extremely important that they adhere to rules of justice by showing all their children equal attention and warmth. Otherwise tensions arise between siblings, as they increasingly seek their parent’s attention, since they feel neglected and passed over. Such tensions can turn into an open conflict and hostility, which stem from an underlying sense of hurt which has been growing over the years. And that’s exactly what happens in the family of Israel – his sons are no longer able to stand Joseph’s arrogance, as he considers his status as their father’s favorite as something obvious. Finally, Joseph’s brother’s hatred bursts out and they relieve the tension present in their family by selling him into slavery. Such a way of “resolving” their family issues brings great suffering to their father, Israel.
Most of us would probably never even think of selling one of our family members into slavery, not even the most annoying ones. But this does not mean that there is no tension present in our families. On the contrary, in almost every family someone feels hurt because their parents showed or still show more attention to one of their siblings; or because their parents had no time or energy to take care of them when they were little, but they did have time to take care of their brother or sister; or because their parents portrayed their older sister as an unparalleled example of virtues.
Such a sense of hurt can reveal itself after many years and erupt with much more intensity. What can we do in order to avoid this? It depends on our role within the family. If we are the parents, we can try to show all our children, even the most rebellious teenagers, how much we care about them. If we have siblings, we can ask ourselves if we are not trying to attract our parent’s attention at the expense of our brothers and sisters. In addition, if we sense a tension in our relationship with our brother or sister, we can ask ourselves if it doesn’t stem from the feeling that one sibling was always the favorite. If that is the case, we must ask ourselves if we can improve our relationship by undertaking actions aiming to promote our family’s reconciliation. This is not easy, and such a process can often take even many years.
Selling Joseph into slavery, which was the culmination of the hatred growing within Israel’s family, proved to be beneficial for the Jewish nation, since it allowed the Israelites to find shelter in Egypt during the famine. However, this became possible only after a long time of separation and a painful reconciliation. By describing the eruption of hatred between the sons of Israel, which stemmed from the mistakes that he [Israel] made as a parent, Parashat Vayeshev warns us to avoid situations which could lead to the escalation of family conflicts. This Shabbat I encourage you to reflect on how you could alleviate conflicts and tensions within your family.
Translated from Polish by: Marzena Szymańska-Błotnicka