“And Rava bar Meḥasseya said that Rav Ḥama bar Gurya said that Rav said: A person should never distinguish one of his sons from among the other sons by giving him preferential treatment. As, due to the weight of two sela of fine wool [meilat] that Jacob gave to Joseph, beyond what he gave the rest of his sons, in making him the striped coat, his brothers became jealous of him and the matter unfolded and our forefathers descended to Egypt” (Gemara Shabbat 10b).
Our parsha begins with the special love and favoritism that Yaakov showed Yosef, painful as it was for the brothers. “And Yisrael loved Yosef from amongst all of his sons because he was his most clever. And he made him a coat of many colors. And his brothers saw that it was he that their father loved from amongst all of his brothers, and they hated him. And they could not speak peaceably with him” (Gen. 37:3-4).
As we all know, this will soon culminate in the brothers considering killing Yosef before settling on the relatively more peaceful notion of selling him into slavery. When Yosef disappears, Yaakov will become inconsolable and Yehuda will temporarily leave the family. “And it was at that time that Yehuda descended from his brothers and strayed toward an Adulamite man named Hira” (38:1). Rashi asserts that Yehuda leaves the family because his brothers consider him responsible for their decision to sell Yosef (it was, after all, his suggestion). Thus, Yaakov’s favoritism has, in fact, lost him not one son, but two. Yehuda leaves the family and joins Canaanite society. He will only later return, after what seems to be many years, given that the story includes his sons growing up and marrying Tamar. The brothers must have mulled over the idea of favoritism many times in their minds, considering how it had – at least temporarily – destroyed their family.
Remarkably – and frankly, rather shockingly – Yehuda shows the exact same type of favoritism to one of his sons that his father had shown to Yosef! As Rabbi Amnon Bazak points out in his wonderful book of short essays on the parsha, Starting Point, the evidence for this begins to pile up once you are made aware of the issue. Read with me, for a moment:
“And it was at that time that Yehuda descended from amongst his brothers, and he strayed toward an Adulamite man named Hira. And Yehuda saw there the daughter of a Canaanite man, and his name was Shua. And he married her and consummated with her. And she became pregnant, and she bore him a son. And he named him Er. And she became pregnant again, and she bore a son. And she named him Onan. And she again bore him a son and she named him Shelah. And he was in Keziv when she bore this one. And Yehuda took a wife for Er, his eldest son and her name was Tamar. And it was that Er, Yehuda’s eldest, was bad in the eyes of G-d and G-d killed him. And Yehuda said to Onan, go to the wife of your brother and perform a levirate marriage with her; and make a family for your brother. And Onan knew that the children would not be his. And it was when he consummated with the wife of his brother, that he would destroy his seed on the ground, so as not to give a descendant to his brother. And what he had done was bad in the eyes of G-d, and He killed him as well.”
First, Yehuda names only one son. His wife names the other two. Then, he chooses a wife, but only for Er, described twice as his “eldest.” When Er dies, he instructs Onan to marry Tamar so as to make a family for his brother. Onan, seeing that the children would be seen as belonging, in a way, to Er, decides to not have any children with Tamar at all. He refuses to preserve the memory of his brother. Why? The obvious understanding is that he is jealous of the favoritism that Yehuda showed Er for so many years. In fact, given that Tamar may be his only wife, Onan may be refusing to have children at all, all out of spite for his older brother.
How could Yehuda possibly do this? Doesn’t he know as well as anyone else – perhaps better than anyone else – how damaging and dangerous such favoritism is? How can he begin his way down the very same path his father took, privileging one son over the others with a name, wife, and legacy?
Sadly, the simplest answer may also be the most painful one. We may not like the mistakes our parents made but this doesn’t mean we will not repeat them at the first opportunity and then again at many others. In fact, we sometimes have a penchant for repeating just the things that drove us crazy as children, thus perpetuating for generations to come the same harmful errors that we ourselves lived through.
From a certain perspective, this is a very good thing:
People who grow up in family oriented environments – homes where family comes first, above all else – tend to have an easier time passing this value on to their own children. The same is true for particularly charitable families, where tzedaka is practiced often, and sometimes publicly. It is true for Torah study, patience, kindness, hosting, volunteerism, and in other, innumerable, ways. When parents do things well, they pass them on to their children and make it easier for them to do the same.
The same is true, unfortunately, on the flip side. Children often “inherit,” so to speak, the less wonderful habits of their parents. This could be a lack of emphasis on family time, choosing financial success over the dinner table, a lack of Torah study, communication, patience, and so on.
In theory, the vast majority of us agree that to live a religiously ideal life would be best. It would be better if we were more patient, calm, and kind; it would be better if we prayed with fervor and cultivated a strong relationship with G-d; it would be better if we paid more attention to the needs of others, refrained from gossip, and found time to study Torah by ourselves and with our loved ones. Yet, it is difficult to arrange our lives around even our own professed values. We feel drawn to success in areas that sometimes do not make our lives appreciably better (new car, bigger house, fancier vacation) and struggle to prioritize the things that we know would be better for us. There are many, many reasons for this. Sometimes, the reason is that we internalized damaging habits, concepts, and goals before we were even aware of it.
The key here is not to look back and start to pick apart the very people who brought us into this world and spent decades doing the best they could to care for us. The key is to take control of our own role in this story and cycle, and make sure that we do not pass on the wrong values and habits to our own children. If we need to make more time for family, let’s do it. If we are not making time for Torah study and proper prayer, then we must turn it around. If we are not yet able to control our anger like we should, or refrain from damaging gossip, then we cannot wait until tomorrow, let alone another generation or two.
The future is our greatest strength in this day to day, inward battle. It is precisely because we love our children that we will be able to keep our minds focused on what they need to be better versions of themselves. And what they need, if we are honest, is a better version of us.