Parashat Vayeishev 5775– Shabbat Torah Study in the D–Giving the Benefit of the Doubt

I love learning things that help me see things from a different perspective.

I love hearing stories of how failing to give someone the benefit of the doubt caused a person to be misjudged and how the misjudged person was ultimately vindicated when the whole truth became known.

Did you ever misjudge someone by failing to give him or her the benefit of the doubt and then find out how wrong you really were?

Sometimes it is just so hard to give someone the benefit of the doubt. Somehow we think that we know all of the facts (or fill in the blanks with our own assumptions) based on our own experiences and knowledge of human nature (as we understand it). Our Rabbi Aaron Bergman at Adat Shalom Synagogue in Farmington Hills, Michigan has taught that how we judge others says more about ourselves than the person we judge since we tend to assume that others have the same characteristics that we may have ourselves. Isn’t that something to ponder?

Take our Patriarch Jacob in this week’s Parasha Vayeshev. We read that Jacob loved Joseph “best” (is that what “me’kol” really means) of all his children and made Joseph the famous “Coat of Many Colors” the “ketonet passim.” (Gen. 17:3) The Torah goes on to state that the brothers saw in this that their father loved Joseph more than them and were envious of him to the point of hatred. (Gen. 17:4)

It is easy for us to criticize Jacob, isn’t it.? After all, the first class in Parenting 102 (101 is when there is only one child) says don’t show favoritism. Be sensitive to the needs of a big brother or sister who may feel displaced. (See Freud on Birth Order Trauma).

Yet, whether we like it or not, one parent or the other may naturally gravitate to one child or another for a variety of reasons; some reasons more common, but no less unhealthy than others: (a) the child that is most like that particular parent, (b) the child that is most solicitous of the parent’s needs, (c) the child that is the most successful in sports, (d) the child that is the most physically beautiful, (e) the child wanted by the parent to be their friend or vice-versa, (f) the child who may be the fulfillment of the parents own unfulfilled dreams – the “vicarious children” and the list can go on.

While we criticize Jacob, there are a couple of Midrashic commentaries that say that we should not be too hasty in our judgment of his parenting after all.

There is a Midrash that Joseph needed extra attention, that in a way he was actually a special needs child. Joseph lost his mother at an early age. All of his siblings not only had each other, but they had their mothers’ living love and attention. Joseph, we understand, was very bright, found pleasure in his active imagination and dreams, but his people/social skills left much to be desired (Gen. 17: 5-11). The Torah also calls Joseph a “na-ar” which can be interpreted as being impetuous and lacking impulse control. (Gen. 17:2) Does that background and list of traits and behaviors sound like any disorder diagnosis you have ever read?

You see, the commentators say, that Jacob was trying to help Joseph feel loved after Joseph lost his mother. Joseph could not understand why she should have been taken away from him at such a young age. Also, it has been taught, that Joseph did not learn well through conventional means and needed more time to learn. Joseph’s brothers did not need a colorful coat to feel good about themselves. Jacob gave Joseph the coat because Joseph’s self-esteem needed it.

Another reason the commentators give is that in other cultures of the time, only those still learning wore the colorful tunics, while those who had completed their studies wore drab colors. If that is counterintuitive, it tells you that we always need a context before we judge a situation where different cultures may be involved. Jacob was trying to show the siblings that Joseph needed more time and attention while the other siblings did not and they should not be jealous. And after all, is Jacob entitled to a little sympathy of his own, having lost Rachel and no longer having the help of Joseph’s mother as a loving partner in parenting?

In our daily lives, we may see a parent doting on a child that needs extra attention because of mental or physical issues. We may see a parent so devoted to the care of a special needs child and who finds true meaning and purpose in their lives by providing that care that it appears that the child is the favorite. That child certainly takes most of the parent’s time. We would hardly criticize the parent of a special needs child whose life style involves constant self-sacrifice.

While many commentators are critical of Jacob for creating a Coat of Many Colors that became a red flag in front of a bull, some sensitive commentators suggest that we dig deeper before judging. If Jacob was guilty of anything, it may have been a failure to communicate adequately with the older siblings about what Jacob’s concerns were and not helping them understand Joseph’s special needs and enlisting their help too.

The Commentator’s also note that in describing his love for Joseph, Jacob is referred to as “Israel.” This should be a clue that Jacob is to be given the benefit of the doubt that the actions were not only consciously and thoughtfully designed with the best interests of the future in mind, but that the divine force from whom Jacob obtained the name Yisrael was very much involved in the essential story of our people that is unfolding in this week’s Parasha.

This Shabbat we are privileged to learn even more about this week’s Parasha with scholar Ruth Bergman. 9:45 a.m. Come as you are. Stay as long as you like.

Shabbat Shalom,


P.S. With the first light of the Chanukah Menorah being lit on Tuesday evening—the 25th of Kislev, I extend to you and your families every best wish for a Happy Chanukah.

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