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“Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his children, because he was the son of his old age” Genesis 37:3
Favouritism has forever torn apart families, unravelled communities and divided entire peoples. So when this week’s sidrah begins with Israel (Jacob)’s favouritism towards Joseph, we know the story is likely to take an unpleasant turn. But what made Joseph more loved than any of the other children and what can we learn from how Israel came to favour one child over all others?
An unusual phrase is used to describe Joseph’s special status, ben zekunim. Plainly translated, it means “the son of his old age” and is usually understood to mean that Jacob was an older man when Joseph was born. Somehow, this makes him dearer than his siblings and the exact reasoning has created generations of discussion.
The great 13th-century Spanish scholar Ramban offers a practical understanding of ben zekunim, suggesting elders would select one of their younger sons to stay home and look after their father well into his old age. Joseph’s physical proximity and bond of care to Israel set him apart from his brothers and won a special place in Israel’s heart. What began as a practical decision created an unbalanced distribution of love and when that happens the result is pain and neglect for those missing out.
But another, perhaps more controversial, interpretation comes from Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (19th century, Germany). He reads the phrase ben zekunim as a sign that Israel saw his own image living on in Joseph, a favoured protégé who would carry on the name and traits of his father. Israel’s desire for self-perpetuation fuelled the favouritism which tore apart the family and created years of torture for everyone involved. Aside from offering a brutal critique of our forefather, Rabbi Hirsch’s interpretation suggests a key to overcoming favouritism in our own lives.
We like those that are like us and having them near makes us feel better about ourselves. This natural instinct is essential at times but when used inappropriately creates a frenzy of discrimination and destruction. The challenge learned from Israel’s favouritism is that each of us must wrestle against our selfish nature to welcome those who are different into our “inner circle”.