I must admit that I have been waiting for this week’s Parshat Hashavua (Torah Portion) for months now. This week we read Parshat Vayeshev, which begins several weeks of one of the most beautiful stories in the Torah, the story of Joseph and his brothers. I always look forward to this story because of its literary style and its insights into family dynamics and so many aspects of our human experience. But this year, I confess, I have been anticipating reading this story because for the past several months, my children – my three year old and, in particular, my five year old – have been obsessed with the musical production “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” (Just writing the title puts the songs in my head . . . “how I love my coat of many colors . . .”) I think my son knows every word of every song on the soundtrack, and he even refers to the different songs by the number of the track on the cd!
But what is more amazing to me than my son’s memorization of lyrics, is that he has already begun to internalize some of the story’s messages. And it is one of these messages, of which he reminded me recently, that I am thinking about this week. Just before I left for Israel to escort our students home, he reminded me of the gift he wanted me to bring back for him from Israel. I responded that I would, and that I would bring something for his younger sister and brother as well. To this he responded, “Yes you should, Abba, not like Jacob.” I had to process this for a moment, and then I realized that he was referring to Jacob’s favoritism of Joseph when he gave Joseph a gift (the multicolored coat) and not the brothers.
I have been reading this parsha for years with close literary analysis, traditional commentaries, and psychological interpretations. But my son, with the help of the Broadway musical, naturally read the story in such a simple but profound way – through the lens of his own life experience. How obvious it is to him that Jacob represents his parent, that he and his siblings are Joseph and his brothers, and that we as parents give them multicolored coats on a regular basis. At first, to be honest, I basked in my son’s literary insights; but as I think more about this, I am daunted by the story’s implication of Jacob and the implicit message about the challenges of raising, and I would add educating, children.
This Friday morning I had what I hope will be our first of many informal conversations with parents (and eventually with students and teachers) about topics relating to education, our students and our school. We discussed the stress so many high school students feel on a regular basis. Some of this stress is inherent in adolescence and the high school experience. But we must be reflective as a community about the ways that our culture feeds stress or alleviates stress. As I think about my son’s comment and the Joseph story, I am reminded of the subtle (and often not so subtle!) messages we and our society send – about what success looks like, about expectations of achievement, about competition and comparisons to others – and of the impact these messages can have on our children. They are in fact surrounded by siblings who are receiving multicolored coats on a regular basis.
It is our job as a community to be the tikkun (the correction) for Jacob’s behavior and to send the message that love, support, and success are not zero-sum games, but rather that there is enough to go around. It is our job as a school to help our students find ways to tap into their unique potential and to taste success in different ways; this, I believe, will ultimately build the confidence and self esteem that will enable them to focus on their own gifts, rather than compare whose gifts are more precious and who is more loved.
May we read the stories of the Torah from time to time through the eyes of a five year old, seeing ourselves in its stories and its messages in our lives. And may we continue to build families and a community with an abundance, not a scarcity, of opportunities for success, support and love.
Rabbi Marc Baker