Searching for Jacob's Righteousness


Dear Rabbi:

There is a running joke in my family that I like my daughter better than my son. When my first grandson was born, I went up to my son and told him he no longer was number two. He said “it took awhile but it’s great that I made it to number one.” I quickly explained that he was going in the wrong direction and that he had moved to number three. When my second grandson was born, he didn’t bother to even ask and just shifted to number four. But truth be told, I love my children, which includes the two grandchildren, equally in different ways.

We have now reached parshah Vayeishev of which the main character is allegedly Joseph. But if one were to really think about this week’s episode, it all takes place because of Jacob.

In the First Aliyah at Genesis 37: 3-4, we learn the following:

“And Israel loved Joseph more than all his sons, because he was a son of his old age; and he made him a fine woolen coat.”

“And his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, so they hated him, and they could not speak with him peacefully.”

This is yet another example of the real Jacob that you feel has evolved and is righteous. What type parenting skills is he showing here? His obvious favoritism towards Joseph causes much hatred from his brothers and also gives Joseph an air of superiority to become a complete brat at the age of seventeen.

We all know the rest of the story. Joseph's brothers were away tending their father's sheep, when Jacob sent Joseph to see how his brothers and the flocks were faring. When Joseph's brothers saw him approaching they plotted to kill him. Reuben, however, implored them not to shed blood, advising them instead to cast him into one of the nearby pits. Reuben's plan was to later return and rescue Joseph from the pit.

I want to stop there for a second. Reuben wants to do the right thing and come back to the pit to save Joseph and return him to his father and in fact in the Third Aliyah when he does not see  Joseph in the pit when he returned to the scene, at Genesis 37:29, the following is stated:

“And Reuben returned to the pit, and behold, Joseph was not in the pit; so he rent his garments.”

I take this to mean that Reuben’s initial reaction is that he thinks Joseph is dead and mourns the loss of his brother. However, he then learns of what his brother’s have done by selling Joseph to the Ishmaelites, and he goes along with the plan of his brothers to dip Joseph’s coat in the blood of an animal and show it to Jacob as proof that a wild beast has killed Joseph. My question from all of this is why did Reuben go along with this plan and not tell his father what really happened?

If you come back with Reuben not wanting to face his brother’s wrath, he allows his father to grieve of Joseph’s loss for “many days” which I have read was for a period of twenty-two years. If not immediately, why does Reuben do nothing for all the time Jacob is in mourning? In the Third Aliyah at Genesis 37:35 the following is stated:

“And all his sons and all his daughters arose to console him, but he refused to be consoled, for he said, "Because I will descend on account of my son as a mourner to the grave"; and his father wept for him.”

“All his sons and daughters arose to console him” yet Reuben said nothing. Why? If I may go on with the above sentence, we see Jacob sob at the loss of his favorite son. Not to go over what I already asked, but why did we not see this emotion at the loss of his beloved wife Rachel? 

I have been told that the Torah does not follow a genuine chronological path but the Fourth Aliyah made me think of watching a show on television when in the middle we hear: “We interrupt this story for  breaking news.” Here we have the story of Joseph being broken up by the episode of Judah and Tamar. I don’t want to go into depth about this tale, but if nothing else, the Torah keeps us interested with stories of lurid sex. 

With the Fifth Aliyah we return to the trials and tribulations of Joseph. He winds up being sold and serves the home of Potiphar. Sex again intervenes and Potiphar’s wife gets Joseph thrown into prison. Before he is falsely accused and sent away, he is looked over by G-d and has the run of the house because he is so successful. If he has the run of the house, why doesn’t he attempt to communicate in some way with his father? He just seems to accept his fate. 

This carries over when he is in prison with G-d again protecting him and he gains a degree of control despite his surroundings. He again does not seem to show any emotion while incarcerated except for asking the butler to get him out because of his powers as they relate to dreams. The butler forgets about Joseph and we are left with the cliff hanger of what happens next. The Torah has a way of bringing us back for next week’s episode.



Dear Mordecai,

The questions that animate you in response to reading parshat Vayeshev are:

  1. What type parenting skills is Jacob showing here?
  2. My question from all of this is why did Reuben go along with this plan and not tell his father what really happened?
  3. If not immediately, why does Reuben do nothing for all the time Jacob is in mourning?
  4. If he has the run of the house, why doesn’t Joseph attempt to communicate in some way with his father?

Regarding question one, we are fortunate to live in an age in which loving all of one’s children equally is considered normative. We assume that this is the right way, and it probably is, but clearly different norms operated in the past. I suppose this relates to what I was said this past Sabbath. The New Testament highlights the idea of perfection, but the Torah highlights goodness and holiness. Does having flaws mean that a person cannot be righteous? Or is being righteous being perfect?

Questions two and three are related. Of course, I can’t know the answer, but I can offer suggestions. Even though Reuben did not plan to kill his brother, he did not prevent Joseph from being sold into slavery. I imagine that he was too consumed by shame to admit the truth to his father. People keep all kinds of secrets because of the negative power of shame. Besides, what difference would telling his father make? Reuben had no power to bring his brother back.

Question four is the flip side of question two and three. Perhaps Reuben didn’t tell his father what happened because of his shame, but why wouldn’t Joseph try to contact his father when he had the chance? Joseph probably had submitted to despair and was likely extremely hurt and bitter about what had happened to him. By the time his hurt had dissipated, he was in a very good position in Egypt. He was on top of the world. Why should he compromise his good fortune.

I take issue with one part of your analysis. You suggest that Jacob’s favoritism toward Joseph “caused” his brothers to hate him. This reminds me of the case of Esau who declares he will kill Jacob. Some might suggest that Jacob “caused” his brother to declare he would kill him. People have to be held accountable for their own hatreds and the behaviors that flow from these hatreds. Locating the cause in someone else is just a way to overlook the problem of hatred and the desire to murder. No one has to respond to unfortunate events in their life with hatred. Such a response constitutes a problem in and of itself.



Dear Rabbi,

Your responses reinforce my thinking that rabbis are trained to defend the patriarchs and matriarchs at all costs. As to a different "norm" in the past as it relates to raising children, there is nothing in writing to back such a conclusion and any reasonable person would think that the idea is to love your children equally, maybe in different ways. Your overall theory of Jacob being righteous becasue of his suffering does not help here. As I stated to you earlier, his "suffering" was self inflicted and favoring Joseph just goes along with everything else Jacob has done to this point. I am not equating righteousness to perfection and no one is perfect but a righteous person does not go out of his or her way to favor one child over another. How could this not cause animosity among his children? How has the Torah "highlighted" Jacob's "goodness and holiness" to this point? I anticipate that you will come back with the communications he has had with the Almighty but G-d has spoken to others like Laban who I do not think qualify for these accolades. 

With respect to Reuben, my reading of his coming back to the pit and not seeing Joseph makes him rend his clothes, which to me means he thinks his brother is dead and he grieves the loss. I was under the impression that he then goes back to his brothers and finds out that they have sold Joseph into slavery. As to not telling his father because he "had no power to bring his brother back" maybe if he had told Jacob, they could have found out what happened to him and done something to get him back. It seems to me that Jacob is a person of power and wealth. At the very least Rueben could have tried. After all his brothers showed gumption when their sister was in harm's way. 

Of all the issues you have with my analysis, your attempt to absolve Jacob of any guilt in Joseph being hated by his brothers, has no basis in fact. The Torah states that it is becasue of the favoritism shown by Jacob to Joseph that they hated him. Further, Joseph seeing how his father favored him emboldened him to tell his brothers that he will rule over them. Giving Jacob a pass here does not relate to what had occurred. Your analogy to Esau and Jacob again makes no sense. Nothing in the Torah readings suggest that Esau had an ingrained hatred of his brother. It was the acts of his brother that caused the feelings of hatred. Easu did not state that losing his birthright led to animosity towards his brother but when he learned that he had been cheated out of his blessing from his father by Jacob, it was the straw that broke the camel's back. With all due respect, it was not Esau's "problem" that led to his declaration of wanting to kill his brother, it was the provocation brought on by Jacob. 

To sum up, I am not equating perfection to righteousness. What I am saying is that Jacob was "chosen" and righteousness had nothing to do with it. To this point his actions cannot be given the term righteous. What if your conclusions about Jacob are not correct. Maybe G-d is telling us that despite Jacob's shortcomings, which I submit are many, he was "chosen" by G-d to be a leader of the Jewish people. According to what I have read all Jews are a part of the "Chosen People". It does not mean that everything we do is "righteous" and we have paid dearly over the years becasue we have not lived up to what G-d wants from us. Maybe that is where the word "perfection" can be used. Jacob may be used as an example of what not to do because his actions had consequences and he "suffered" as a result of those actions. Maybe we as Jews have to have better moral compass to live up to what G-d expects of us.