By Rabbi Steven Bayar
This week’s portion is called Vayeshev. It is found toward the end of the book of Genesis. In the text we find Jacob’s family dynamic set and toxic. He has designated Joseph as his favorite and heir-to-be by giving him a coat of many colors.
Dyes were rare and expensive in the Ancient Near East. That Joseph was given a coat with “many colors” indicates a garment of great expense. Joseph will be the next Patriarch to take his place in the pantheon nest to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
Joseph’s brothers have other plans in mind. They sell him down to Egypt and the rest of our Biblical history is set.
The commentaries both ancient and modern are near unanimous in their criticism of Jacob as a father. His blatant favoritism of Joseph helps create a family dynamic that facilitates 400 years of slavery in Egypt. As great as Jacob was, he was only human.
But there is more to learn from this narrative. The Rabbis used these texts as paradigms for family life and communal life. In families we learn that it is not fair to favor one child over another. In communities, is it fair to favor one demographic over another? Joseph thought he was better than his brothers. Is it fair to think of one form of Jew as “better” than others?
Everyone wants to feel special. Each of us wants to be appreciated for what we do and who we are. Unfortunately, too many times we reach this conclusion in comparison to others. We look around to see if we are “more” — more involved, more observant, more knowledgeable.
The issue is as old as our tradition. Hillel and Shammai dealt with the same issues – and so do we. In the Jewish Ethical movement (Musar), the issue is addressed in the concept of “Anivut” (modesty). Modesty is not self-effacement. It is not refusing accolades or compliments. Rather, modesty is when you have an honest and frank appreciation for who you are, what you do and your potential – and simultaneously realize that you are human – and no more special than anyone else. Simply put, it means that I may think the world of myself – but not at the expense of thinking less of anyone else.
Each person who walks into our congregation is special. We recognize this as true and continue to internalize it “with all our hearts and all our might,” avoiding the harmful dynamics that began with Jacob – and the pitfalls that weaken communities.