“Like Father, Like Son.”
My eight-year-old nephew, Caleb, is a young comedian with a natural wit about him. At family gatherings he sends his uncles and aunts, cousins and grandparents into fits of side-splitting laughter. Caleb’s personality, warmth and outlook can earn the trust and smile of a complete stranger.
Watching Caleb entertain and interact with others is a form of deja vu for me. Caleb’s father, my older brother, was just like Caleb growing up. He was the comedian of our family; He was very gregarious and always ready to put a smile on someone’s face. Whenever I see Caleb in his classic form, I say to myself, “Like father, like son.”
Where did that concept, “Like father, like son,” come from? The phrase was not coined after Michael Douglas chose a career in acting like his father, Kirk, nor was it coined after Laila Ali followed in her father, Muhammad’s footsteps as a professional boxer. It is an idea which we find in this week’s parasha, Vayashev. The parasha begins in a conventional fashion, 37:2 preparing to cite the generations of Jacob’s family.
“These are the generations of Jacob.” The Torah often begins narrative chapters with the words, “These are the Chronicles”. Twelve chapters earlier, the Bible tells the chronicles of Isaac using the exact same phraseology. But, our parasha does something peculiar in the second verse of chapter 37.
“These are the generations of Jacob, Joseph was seventeen years old and was a shepherd with his brothers among the flock.”
Why does the Torah skip directly to Joseph when listing the chronology of Jacob’s children? After all, Jacob had twelve sons. Why would the other eleven sons go unmentioned? Why does the text focus solely on Joseph? The next verse, chapter 37, verse 3, gives a hint as to why Joseph was singled out.
“Now Israel (Jacob) loved Joseph more than all his children, because he was the son of his old age;”
Jacob favored Joseph over his other children. I have vivid memories of asking my mother and father which one of my three brothers was their favorite. My parents always had the same answer. “You are all our favorite,” they would say. “We love you all very much and equally.” As I grew up, I found that all parents I encountered claimed the same equal distribution of love for their children that my parents proudly professed.
If parents are supposed to love their children equally then why does Jacob break the unwritten parental oath and choose a favorite?
In chapter 22, verse 2 of Genesis, God tests Abraham and tells him,
“Take now your son, your only son, whom you love, take Isaac and go to the land of Moriah.”
According to the peshat, the literal translation of the text, Abraham also had a favorite son, Isaac. However, according to Rashi, the eleventh century commentator, the lengthy description of Abraham’s son is actually a two-sided conversation of which the reader only hears one side – God’s. In his commentary on chapter 22:2, Rashi fills in the responses of Abraham.
God says to Abraham, “Take your son.”
Abraham replies, “I have two sons.”
God says, “Take your son that is an only child.”
Abraham replies, “They are each only children to their respective mothers.”
God says, “Take the son you love.”
Abraham replies, “I love them both equally.”
Finally, God says, “Take Isaac.”
Rashi, explains that the verse is half a dialogue and in fact Abraham loves his two children equally, as we would expect.
If we follow Rashi’s understanding of Genesis 22:2, from where does Jacob learn the precedent of favoring a child? And, equally important, Why Joseph? Jacob has twelve sons to choose from, why would he select number eleven to be the chosen son?
Our commentators ask the same question and a few answers are offered. The verse in Genesis says that Joseph was beloved because he was, Ben Zekunim Lo, he was born to Jacob at an old age. If that is the case, why isn’t Benjamin, the youngest child the favorite? Furthermore, according to the chronology of the text, Zevulun and Issachar are only a few years older than Joseph. So why the tremendous distinction?
Onkelos, one of the earliest translators of the Hebrew Bible to Aramaic, infers from the phrase, Ben Zekunim Lo, that Joseph had unique wisdom for someone his age, reading the Hebrew word Zaken as an acronym for the Talmudic dictum, Zeh SheKaNah Chachmah, one who has acquired wisdom.
Rashi and Nachmanidies, suggest that Ben Zekunim Lo, sounds like the phrase Zeev Eekonin Lo, which means, (Joseph) had a fine appearance, (similar to his father’s). According to this tradition, Joseph was a handsome man who bore a strong resemblance to his father.
There has to be more than resemblance for Joseph to graduate as valedictorian of Jacob’s family. One could convincingly argue that Joseph was a child of Jacob’s true love, Rachel, and that biological composition made him special. Rachel was Jacob’s beloved wife for whom he labored fourteen years to earn the permission to marry. But, Benjamin, Joseph’s younger brother was also a product of Rachel’s womb. Why is Joseph favored over Benjamin?
Perhaps it is because Jacob and Joseph shared much more than good looks. They had similar lives. Both Jacob and Joseph’s mothers had trouble conceiving and when they finally did conceive, both of their mothers had two sons. Jacob and Joseph both had brothers who hated them and even sought to kill them. Jacob and Joseph were both shepherds and they were both promoted in the eyes of God through a dream. These are similarities that Jacob shared only with Joseph.
Contemporary parents often encourage their daughters and sons to make decisions. Whether it is to follow a career path or buy a specific home, attend a certain college or to make particular investment decisions, many parents try to be the rudder of a child’s life. Often the children hear from their parents, “If I only knew at your age what I am telling you now.”
Parents try to deflect danger that lies in their child’s path and they seek to propel them down the road of evident triumphs, because they recognize that road as one they have traveled. Many times we look at our children as we wished we could once look at ourselves – wanting to fix all of our shared mistakes and helping them to make all the right decisions. Little do we realize that going down those paths and making those mistakes were the ingredients that led us to broader experiences and increased wisdom both individually and as a people.
We are about to inaugurate a new president of the United States of America. This president-elect’s father, who previously held the same office, must look at his son with great pride. Surely, he will want to offer advice and counsel in an effort to steer him away from pitfalls that troubled his own presidency at the same time encouraging him to embrace challenges that helped him succeed a decade ago. George W. Bush has even been staffing several major posts of his administration with people who were close associates of his father’s. Many of us watching George W. Bush’s cabinet take shape are thinking deja vu, or perhaps, ‘Like father like son.’
This week’s parasha teaches us that when we look at our children we are actually looking back in time at ourselves. Maybe the environment is different or the scenario varied, but the situation, at its core is the same. Joseph found favor in his father’s eyes because Jacob saw himself in his son. The same facial structures, familial dissent, personal struggles and life altering dreams were lived again, vicariously, through Joseph.
As we read and watch Joseph grow and struggle in the chapters that follow, and as we look at presidential candidates, actors, boxers and my nephew Caleb, we say, ‘Like father, like son.’ We see ourselves in our children, witnessing similar mistakes and shared destinies. May God give us the strength when looking at our progeny and seeing shades of ourselves in yesteryear, to realize that our commonalties between father and daughter, mother and son link our proverbial chain to the successes and shortcomings of our ancestors of the Bible.
Shabbat Shalom U’Mevorach ve-Hag Urim Sameah,
Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner