Ideally, the distribution of presents should be an expression of goodwill that enhances the affection or esteem that exist between the giver and the receiver. There are, however, some occasions when the implications of a gift are not fully thought out, and it becomes an occasion for resentment or bitterness. A common scenario of this sort is when the generosity that was extended toward one person causes others to feel slighted.
It would appear that a classic instance of this pattern may be found in the Torah, in Jacob's treatment of his children. It was not enough that the patriarch openly demonstrated that he loved young Joseph more than his siblings, but he had to rub their faces in it by giving him a special Dream Coat to serve as a constant reminder of his partiality. Evidently this was what pushed the tragic sibling rivalry to its point of no return.
The pious sages of the Midrash were often inclined to put a favourable spin on questionable deeds of our biblical ancestors. Indeed, several of them found weighty reasons why Jacob, who was endowed with prophetic insights into his sons' spiritual character and the destiny of their descendants, should have singled out Joseph for special favours. Nevertheless, they could not completely overlook what was manifestly a case of unforgivably bad parenting. This disapproving perspective was given unequivocal formulation by some prominent rabbis: "Rabbi Simeon ben Laqish said in the name of Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah: A man should take care not to show favouritism with his children. For on account of the ornamental cloak that our father Jacob fashioned for Joseph--When his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of them, they hated him and could not speak a kind word to him.'"
The Babylonian Talmud drew the same conclusion in more pointed and explicit language: "Rava bar Mahasia cited Rav Hama bar Goria in the name of Rav: A person should never show favouritism towards one of his sons. For it was on account of a mere two selas' weight of fine wool by which Jacob favoured Joseph more than his other sons that they became jealous of him; and ultimately this caused our ancestors to end up in Egypt."
Indeed, by linking Jacob's special treatment of Joseph not only to the appalling sibling rivalry, but also to the nation's enslavement in Egypt, the Talmud was opening itself up to a potential objection, one that was raised by several later scholars. As the medieval Tosafot argued: Why should we blame Jacob or his sons? The Israelites would certainly have ended up in Egypt in any case! After all, the Almighty had already foretold to Abraham that "your descendants will be strangers in a land not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated."
Some of the commentators respond to this objection by noting that the divine promise to Abraham could have been fulfilled in other ways, in a different land (Egypt was not identified by name to Abraham) or with less severe suffering. However, it seems to me that such solutions are missing the main point.
This issue was tackled head-on by the fifteenth-century Spanish philosopher Rabbi Isaac Arama in his Akedat Yitzhak commentary, in the context of a remarkable theological discussion about the interplay between the divine historical plan and the moral freedom of individual human beings. Although God ultimately made use of the family conflict to bring about his scheme of enslaving Abraham's descendants, in no way did he compel or encourage Jacob or his sons to mistreat Joseph in the first place. Consequently, they must accept full moral accountability for their actions and choices. If Jacob had not provoked their envy and if the brothers had not sold Joseph, then surely the Lord would have found other ways to achieve his historical purpose.
This reproachful attitude toward Jacob was echoed by the Italian exegete Rabbi Obadiah Sforno who stated that in favouring Joseph with the gift of the special coat, Jacob had shown bad judgment by singling out one of his children for preferential treatment, and by making evident to them the special affection that he had hitherto been keeping to himself.
The difficult question is exacerbated yet more when we turn to a later episode in the saga of Joseph and his brothers. After they have all been reconciled and Joseph invites the family to escape the famine by joining him in Egypt, he provides them all with presents: "To each of them he gave new clothing, but to Benjamin he gave three hundred shekels of silver and five sets of clothes."
The Talmud was flabbergasted by Joseph's conduct here. Joseph himself was now perpetuating the same kind of gift-giving treatment that his father had shown toward him, and which that had brought upon him and his family such grievous suffering!
Indeed, Rabbi Eleazar ben Pedat could not conceive how Joseph could have acted so foolishly. It simply made no sense as long as his action was understood purely from the perspective of the psychological dynamics of the family relationship. He therefore proposed another, symbolic meaning for the special gift that Joseph bestowed on Benjamin. The five sets of clothes should accordingly be read as a prophetic allusion to the exploits of Benjamin's illustrious descendant Mordecai who would one day be honored by Ahasuerus with five splendid garments of royal apparel.
Even according to this rather fanciful reading of the story, Rabbi Eleazar is acknowledging that, were it not for the deeper symbolic significance of the gesture, it would have been improper for Joseph to single out Benjamin for preferential treatment in the doling out of presents to his brothers.
And this, I suppose, is a valuable lesson that we can take away from this disturbing instance of family dysfunctionality: whenever the spirit of magnanimity moves us to give out presents to people we love and admire, we must consider not only the feelings of satisfaction that the gift may produce in the recipients, but also the offended reactions it might provoke in persons who have not benefited from the same measure of generosity.
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