וישראל אהב את יוסף מכל בניו
Bereishith/Gen. 37:3 says that Jacob loved Joseph more than his brothers, and gave him a “coat of many colors.” Immediately, his brothers hated Joseph for being the “favorite.”
In showing favorites, Jacob was merely continuing the pattern set by his own mother and, in a way, by Avraham (regarding Ishmael and Isaac.) It’s bad enough when parents find themselves preferring one child to another involun-tarily; much worse when it’s a conscious choice. A preferential feeling might be unavoidable, but parents must be very watchful not to let these feelings be expressed in actions.
Commentators typically point to the brothers’ animosity as a natural outgrowth of Jacob’s display of favoritism. If they learned from it not to continue the pattern into their management of their own families, then it served a positive providential purpose. Torah doesn’t say that this was the result, although by Moses’ time, there seemed to be an “egalitarian” attitude among the Israelite tribes. The discontent over the preference given to the tribe of Levi, and Korach’s contention that Moses and Aaron had “taken too much on themselves,” might harken back to this painful theme in the family’s history.
Torah does say that the brothers were ultimately remorseful for the misery that the expression of their own hatred [especially pretending that Joseph had been killed] brought on their father, their brother, and themselves. The lesson here is, of course, that by showing preference to Joseph, Jacob had challenged the self-esteem of his other sons, their simmering response to which was an explosive act of violent self-assertion (to feel better about themselves).
Their hatred of and violence towards Joseph was also an example of misplaced anger: it was really Jacob, not Joseph, at whom they were angry. It was really Jacob’s, not (or as well as) Joseph’s feelings that they were ignoring, perhaps even violating, by their actions, just as they felt Jacob had ignored, even violated, theirs.
But Jacob’s favoritism was ultimately no less unfair to Joseph himself. It put Joseph in a profoundly uncomfortable position vis-à-vis his brothers; one of which he must have been aware. All of us have experienced walking into a hostile environment (sometimes all the more hostile by being expressed in silence). Even if we don’t “take it personally,” it’s difficult not to be on our guard, unlike times when we’re in a friendly environment and can “be ourselves.” Joseph couldn’t “be himself” with his own brothers. It must have made him very anxious, because his brothers were also (or should have been)his companions, just as they were for each other.
Why else would he indulge in such inappropriate, provocative behavior, as to tell those who already hated him of his dream that they would ultimately “bow down” to him?
On the surface, it must have seemed to his brothers like the crassest arrogance. They couldn’t have helped but feel that he was ignoring their feelings, just as Jacob had. Already treated by their father as “second-rate,” they were now faced with their hated brother telling them that they, and their feelings, “didn’t matter.”
But perhaps in their hatred they, too, were misunderstanding Joseph’s feelings; they, too, were following the “family pattern.”
Joseph’s dreams certainly contained a prophetic element, as shown by subsequent events in the text itself. But why would he show such a lack of common sense as to tell his dreams to those who hated him? By talking to them at all, the text shows that he was reaching out to them, however ungracefully. His brothers’ rejection of him might have been at least as much a threat to his self-esteem, as Jacob’s favoritism had been to his brothers’. To Joseph’s mind and heart, the dreams seemed to be saying that ultimately, there would be harmony between him and his family. Their “bowing” didn’t mean – to him – that they were abasing themselves. Rather, it showed that they were welcoming him; accepting him – the opposite of the rejection they typically displayed.
His anxiety interferes with his own good judgment, and he tells his brothers his dreams. Why? It’s a poorly thought-out attempt to relieve his anxiety by neutralizing the hostility of which he’s an object. Saying to people who hated him, “Hey, I dreamed that some day you’re going to love me,” only made things worse.
But why does Joseph also have a dream in which the sun and moon [i.e. his father and mother] bow down to him, for which Jacob rebukes him, despite his favored status? What needed resolution in their relationship? Joseph’s feelings for Jacob show a degree of conflict: Even though he was “favored,” his father’s actions had made him hated and, as a result, anxious. In effect, by displaying favoritism towards him, Jacob was being as oblivious of his feelings, as of his brothers’ feelings.
How conflicted Joseph might have been – seemingly enjoying the favoritism and yet, at the same time, ruing and resenting it! Thus, the dream in which his father and mother “bow down” to him is, like the previous dream, one in which there’s ultimate recognition and acceptance by his parents, too, of his own feelings.
Note, however, that there’s nothing in his dreams that demonstrates his recognition of theirs!
That comes later.
Torah doesn’t specify the point at which Joseph comes to understand their feelings and forgive them. But years later, when his brothers and his father come to see him in Egypt, they have all matured through examining their own hearts, and – especially – by considering others’ feelings, which they’d previously ignored.
Yet, Torah is G-d’s view of things. What makes this “Torah” is that the characters aren’t “judged” or “condemned” for their actions. All of their human failings and sins against each other ultimately serve a providential purpose. Joseph and his brothers seem to finally realize this, as we should, too.
To paraphrase Jacob: G-d is in these events — all the events of our lives — even if we “know it not.”