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Rabbinic Reflections - Parshat Toldot                            November 30, 2019 - 2 Kislev 5780

11/27/2019 10:54:48 AM


The subject of parental favoritism has been trending lately, with a number of think pieces popping up on the internet and in magazines over the last several months on the topic. While many parents are often quick to declare they don’t have a favorite, a number of kids — and adult siblings — may beg to differ. In fact, the effect parental favoritism can have on kids, whether real or perceived, is a topic that’s been of growing concern.  

Research has found that the effect isn’t great, showing that children who perceive themselves as being the least favorite are more likely to do drugs and use alcohol and cigarettes in their teenage years. This is especially true when the family unit isn’t otherwise very close. And tension between siblings seems to increase when a favored child is in the mix.

Parents may also be surprised to learn that perception appears to hold a greater weight than reality in this case. In other words, it doesn’t matter so much if Mom or Dad actually have a favorite. All that really counts is if a child thinks they do. However, whether conscious or not, studies also show that a large proportion of parents consistently favor one child over another. This favoritism can manifest in different ways: more time spent with one child, more affection given, more privileges, less discipline, or less abuse.

Research by sociologist Jill Suitor examines some of the causes and consequences of parental favoritism, which occurs in one- to two-thirds of American families. Despite its taboo in our society, we consider some cases of parental favoritism to be fair — and even necessary. For example, parents give more attention to newborns than they do to their older children. The same goes for children who are sick or disabled. In these situations, parents often discuss the unequal treatment with the disfavored children in order to assure them that it's nothing personal. Other reasons for parental favoritism most of us would judge as unfair, yet they don't surprise us much. Parents might spend more time with and feel closer to same-gender children than to opposite-gender children. In mixed families, parents favor their biological children over step-children. In patriarchal cultures, parents simply favor boys over girls.

There are several additional factors that predict favoritism, one of which is birth order: Parents favor first- and last-born children over middle children. This occurs in part because middle children will never be the only child living at home — at some point first-borns and last-borns will have their parents all to themselves. Overall, first-borns get the most privileges and last-borns receive the most parental affection. It is not surprising, then, that Isaac and Rebecca choose favorites among their twins, even though we may frown upon it.

The Torah reading begins with the birth of twins-Jacob & Esau. The story continues with Jacob cheating his brother out of his birthright. Later, with the assistance of his mother, Rebecca, he takes advantage of the Isaac’s poor eyesight and steals his father’s the blessing meant for Esau, the first-born. The Torah reading clearly focuses on the actions of Jacob and Rebecca.

While Jacob, Esau and Rebecca seem to be key players, Isaac seems relegated to the sidelines. What is the role of the patriarch, Isaac, in all of this? Everett Fox notes, “Isaac functions in Genesis as a classic 2nd generation-that is, as a transmitter and stabilizing force, rather than as an active participant in the process of building a people. There hardly exists a story about him in which he is anything but a son and heir, a husband, or a father.” In fact, the most pro-active character in the Torah portion is Rebecca. She struggles with birth (Gen. 25:22): “And the children struggled together within her; and she said, ‘If this be so, why do I live!?’” And she is the one that realizes that Jacob—and not Esau—deserves to carry on the covenant with God. Indeed, Rebecca’s greater love for Jacob than Esau compels her to devise a way for him to steal the blessing of the first-born; rightfully intended for Esau (refer to Genesis 27:5-17). She even plots Jacob’s escape from the wrath of his brother (Gen. 27: 42-43):“And [Rebecca] said to [Jacob]: “Here, Esau your brother is consoling himself about you, with (the thought of) killing you. So now, my son, listen to my voice: Arise and flee to Lavan my brother in Haran.”

According to psychologists Ilan Shrira and Josh Foster, favoritism is also more likely when parents are under a great deal of stress (e.g., marital problems, financial worries). In these cases, parents may be unable to inhibit their true feelings or monitor how fair they're behaving. Evolutionary theorists argue that when emotional or material resources are limited, parents will favor children who have the most potential to thrive and reproduce. Perhaps Rebecca favored Jacob because she felt him to be more stabilizing, more intellectual, more family-oriented and more worthy to pass on the genes and the covenant of Abraham.

Was Rebecca wrong in conspiring to elevate her “favorite” son Jacob? Everett Fox doesn’t think so. He writes, “The true dynamic figure of the 2nd generation here is Rebecca. It is she to whom God reveals his plan, and she who puts into motion the mechanism for seeing that it is properly carried out. She is ultimately the one responsible for bridging the gap between the dream, as typified by Abraham, and the hard-won reality, as realized by Jacob.”

Unfortunately, the consequences of parental favoritism are what we might expect — they're mostly bad. Shrira and Foster observe that disfavored children experience worse outcomes across the board: more depression, greater aggressiveness, lower self-esteem, and poorer academic performance. Sounds a lot like Esau; his parent’s favoritism adversely affects him, perhaps a self-fulfilling prophesy on Rebecca’s part. As well, these repercussions are far more extreme than any benefits the favored children get out of it (negative things just have a stronger impact on people than positive things). And it's not all rosy for the favored children either — their siblings often come to resent them, poisoning those relationships. Again sounds like Esau and his relationship with Jacob. As a result, many of these consequences persist long after children have grown up and moved out of the house. People don't soon forget that they were disfavored by their parents, and many people report that being disfavored as a child continues to affect their self-esteem and their relationships in adulthood. Again, a lot like Jacob and Esau.

Shrira and Foster conclude: Nearly all parents worry about whether they play favorites. But even when parents vow to treat their children equally, they soon find that this is just not possible. Every child is different and parents must respond to their unique characteristics appropriately. You shouldn't react to a 3-year-old's tantrums in the same way as you would to a 13-year-old's. You can't deal with aggressive children in the same way as passive children. Even identical twins can't be treated identically. When it comes down to it, every child wants to feel like they're different, not clones of their siblings. The best parents can do is stay aware of any differential treatment they give and try to be as fair as possible.

So, was Rebecca right in what she did? Are there times when, for the sake of maintaining the vision, one is required to violate the basic tenets of morality; to favor one child over the other and live with the consequences?

Shabbat Shalom!

Wed, August 12 2020 22 Av 5780