“A person should never discriminate among his children even to the extent of a thread [garment] weighing only two weight-measures of silk, similar to that which Jacob gave to Joseph but not to the other brothers” (Shabbat 10b).

It may seem like common sense that one should not show favoritism to one child over another. But, most parents, aunts/uncles and even grandparents, will be unable to deny that there are times when they definitely feel a preference.

The story of Jacob and Joseph (Genesis 37 and 38) is a powerful cautionary tale against favoritism: Jacob made no effort to hide his special feelings for Joseph, and indeed he went out of his way to make him a special coat, declaring to the world that this was his favored child. This led to the animosity of his older brothers, who eventually plotted to kill him, but settled for selling him as a slave!

The sages propose several reasons that might have caused Joseph to be so favored by

1) Joseph was the firstborn of Rachel, Jacob’s beloved wife.

2) Joseph looked very much like Jacob.

3) Joseph was a particularly gifted scholar who exulted when learning about the ways of God from his father. He thus reminded Jacob of himself as a youth, since Jacob was known as a “man who sat in the tents” (meaning that he was a scholar).

The warning against favoritism goes well beyond parents. All those who are in the role of authority must ensure fairness by not favoring one side unfairly over the other. (There are a great number of halachot – Jewish laws – that stress this point.) In fact, the sages even censure Joseph for unfairly showering Benjamin with gifts: “To each man [brother] he gave changes of clothes; but to Benjamin he gave 300 shekels of silver, and five changes of clothes” (Genesis 45:22). The sages are concerned that the abundant gifts would stir up the jealousy of the other brothers. (They had, thankfully, already learned this lesson quite well.)

Copyright © 2011 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.

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