Vayeshev: Sibling Rivalry

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |

The Talmud records that one who has no dreams for a period of seven days is called a wicked person (Brachot 55b). Dreams represent our innermost thoughts, our concerns of the present, and our aspirations for the future. One must never cease to dream of the wonderful possibilities that may await us, constantly looking heavenward as we try to improve the status quo.

The story of Yosef teaches us that some dreams are best not revealed. Yet it was not the dreams that caused the brothers to hate Yosef; they may have added fuel to the fire, but the flames of hatred were already in place. “When his brothers realized that their father loved him more than all the rest, they began to hate him. They could not say a peaceful word to him” (Breisheet 37:4). Only in the next verse are we told that Yosef dreamt a dream and told it to his brothers. It was the favouritism displayed by Yaakov that led not only to hatred, but eventually to our exile to Egypt. Look what trouble a little coloured coat can cause!

The idea that parents must treat children equally is so ingrained and obvious that one wonders how Yaakov could have made such a simple and near fatal error. The Torah tells us “Yisrael loved Yosef more than any of his other sons, since he was a child of his old age” (Breisheet 37:3). We can clearly understand why Yaakov had special feelings towards Yosef. After all, he was the firstborn of his beloved wife Rachel, who passed away tragically young. As our commentaries point out, Yosef spent a good deal of time with his father, caring for him and tending to his needs. Yaakov’s mistake was not in loving Yosef more than his other children, but rather in manifesting this favouritism in concrete ways. It was only “when the brothers saw that their father loved him more” (37:4) that the problems began.

“And Yitzchak loved Eisav for he was also a hunter with his mouth, but Rifka loved Yaakov” (Breisheet 25:28). Yaakov Avinu grew up in a home where favouritism was the norm. Yaakov, while probably cognizant of the negative results of such favouritism, subconsciously adopted such an approach when he had his own children.

This psychological phenomenon of adopting our parents’ patterns when we become parents ourselves can help explain the apparent naivete of Yaakov in sending Yosef to meet his brothers in Shechem. How could he do such a thing, knowing the feelings the brothers harbored towards Yosef? After all, Yaakov himself ran away from home so that Eisav could not kill him; he even ran away from Lavan, who felt completely justified in fooling him at every opportunity. Why send Yosef into such a dangerous situation?

With all of the hatred, some of it perhaps even justifiable, that Eisav felt towards Yaakov, there is absolutely no indication in the Chumash that Eisav ever tried to hurt him. Even at the height of his anger, when Yaakov had stolen his birthright and Eisav declared “the days of mourning for my father are near, then I will slay my brother Yaakov” (Breisheet 27:41), he never attempted to carry out the threat. Instead, upon first seeing his brother Eisav kissed Yaakov, and at the death of Isaac he joined Yaakov in burying him.

It was inconceivable to Yaakov that the brothers would dare to hurt Yosef, despite their hatred and jealousy. Clearly Yosef’s actions of repeating a couple of dreams should evoke much less anger than Yaakov’s theft of the birthright.

It took Yaakov and Eisav more than twenty years to reconcile. Yaakov did not want his sons to have twenty-years-plus of animosity, so he sent Yosef to his brothers while staying out of the fray himself, fully expecting them to resolve their differences. He tragically miscalculated the depths of the brothers’ hatred, and unfortunately, it would take over twenty years for his sons to reconcile.

The belief in the innate goodness of man, while laudatory, can be not only naive but also quite dangerous. “And G-d saw that the wickedness of man was great upon the earth, and that every product of the thoughts of his heart was but evil always” (Breisheet 6:5). Depressing, perhaps; but this, too, is the word of G-d. 

Nonetheless, we must continue to dream of and work toward a world of reconciliation and peace.