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Was Jacob really a  Bad Father?  The True Meaning of the Coat of Many ColorsParshat VaYechi

12/14/2021 10:05:52 AM


Rabbi Rudin

Parshat VaYechi: Was Jacob a Bad Father?  

The True Meaning of the Coat of Many Colors

Every year as we read the Joseph story we look for lessons in the tragic narrative of how Joseph was thrown into a pit and sold into slavery by his brothers.  

And why?  Because their father showed favor to him ahead of all of the others, giving him a fine coat.  The infamous coat of many colors seems to have awakened the jealousy of Joseph’s ten older brothers.  What’s more, Joseph keeps having these dreams of supremacy and dominance over them.  

Mindful of G-d’s promise of nation-founding, the brothers think that Jacob means to cut them out of their heritage and install Joseph as G-d’s chosen successor to power, royalty, glory.  This leads them to plot murder.  Due to brother Judah’s intervention, the brothers mitigate their plan and sell Joseph into Egyptian slavery.

The lesson? What a terrible father!  No wonder things fell apart in the family!  That Jacob!  

Yes.  Jacob.  Israel.  Our namesake.  A terrible father favoring one child above the others.  Why?  Because Joseph was all he had left to remember his beloved wife Rachel.  But what about the others?  No wonder they were goaded to violence.

Really?  Let’s look at it closer.  

Let’s look at the parenting record.

The compassionate and righteous Abraham has two children.  Ishamel and Isaac.  Ishmael becomes an idolator and man of violence.  Isaac becomes pious and righteous, devoted to his heritage and following in the Covenant.   That’s a fifty percent rate of parental success.  

How about Isaac’s two sons, Jacob and Esau?  Esau, the first born, also turns away from the Covenant opting for a life of conquest, violence and power.  Jacob chooses truth, righteousness and cleaves to the Covenant.   Also only fifty percent, so to speak.

And now... Jacob.  In our parsha, at the end of his life, he looks out over his twelve sons and blesses them.  There is no transgression in Jacob, no falseness in Israel.  Every one of the twelve sons has become a Tzaddik in their own right.  Every one of them is devoted to family, a world of compassion and justice, to Jewish continuity.  They all proclaim as one before their father, Shema Yisrael, HaShem Elokeinu, HaShem Echad -- Listen Israel our father, HaShem alone is our G-d and we are one.  

One hundred percent.  Every child has had their own path, made mistakes, some of them tragic and terrible.  But in the end, every one of them arrives at this high level.

Is Jacob really such a bad father?  Has he really made so many mistakes?  

But what about the Coat?  

Reading through the careful eyes of the Midrash, we discover that Joseph was not the only one to receive a fine coat of royalty from their father.  Every single one of the Children of Israel received a coat.  But there was a subtle difference.  Joseph’s coat had two extra stripes on the sleeve.  This was the cause of the brothers’ jealousy and anger.  They interpreted this small sign to mean that Joseph was favored and meant to surpass them all.  

Yes, says the Midrash.  Jacob wanted to make Joseph feel special.  Why?  

Because all of the other older brothers had not only each other, but also their mother Leah.  Only Joseph, whose mother Rachel had died, was alone. Maybe the dreams were a way for Joseph to see himself not left behind, the forgotten orphan.  Of course their father wanted to let Joseph know that he was special too.  The small sign of specialness, the two thin stripes, were not meant to exclude the brothers but to include Joseph.  

Loving our children equally does not mean identically.  It means being sensitive to their unique needs and character.  And the same goes for loving ourselves and nurturing our relationships. 

Even at the very end, Jacob is loving his children, offering each one a blessing, advice or even, in a few cases, a loving rebuke to help them rise higher.  

Among Jacob’s last words: לישועתך קיוויתי ה׳.  I await Thy salvation, HaShem.  All of us are works in progress.  All of us require constant nurturing, refinement and self improvement.  Through our efforts we see the loving, nurturing hand of G-d, preparing blessing.  The Rabbis see the repair of the world and the coming of Messiah as a potluck banquet.  We each prepare a dish to bring to the feast.  Let us learn, like Jacob, to nurture those we love, including ourselves, not in how we need but in how they need. 

Shabbat Shalom


Sat, May 25 2024 17 Iyyar 5784