Standing in the lakeside Chadar Ochel (dining hall) I look over the room and see eager faces, eyes fixed, waiting to hear the message. Seated in a large circle are those who are about to serve on staff for the first time, the overwhelming majority of whom are former campers. I move through my opening pep talk, telling stories about why and how camp makes a difference, etc. At some point, I arrive at the topic of the impact of staff members on campers, and among the questions I ask, two elicit the same responses annually:
"When you were campers, here or at another camp, how many of you knew that you were your counselor's favorite camper?"
There are sheepish, uncomfortable looks around the room as people decide whether or not they will raise their hands and identify themselves as the most loved or most liked. The room is silent. As a few hands go up, the eyes of the owners of those hands usually drop to the floor, avoiding the penetrating gaze of their friends. And then I ask the second question:
"How many of you knew that you were NOT your counselor's favorite?"
In the flash of an eye, lots of hands go up as the eyes of the self-identified "favorites" drop even farther toward the ground. Whether or not they were actually "not the favorites," I point out that which I learned from Rabbi Bill Lebeau, at the time the dean of the Rabbinical School at JTS, namely "that the perception of a problem is a problem itself." I invite both groups to look at one another and ask if people now fully understand the potential impact of the staff member on the camper.
Feeling a deeper connection with one person than another is unavoidable. To claim otherwise is simply impossible. We all have intimates, friends and acquaintances, people with whom we have different levels of connection. And we have people that we don't like for a multitude of reasons, some legitimate and some not. There are those avoided because they caused pain or embarrassment while others are avoided out of a fear that associating with a person may leave her out of the "popular" group. We get to choose our friends, our levels of connection with them, and we even get to choose how we treat others, with all of the responsibility and consequences that come with those choices.
But choosing friends is different than choosing favorites. And acting publicly on those different levels of connection is another thing entirely, as are the consequences for such actions. The Torah repeats this lesson over and over again but never more powerfully than in the opening passages of this week's parashah:
And Israel loved Joseph more than all of his other sons - for he was the son of his old age...and he made him a multi-colored coat. And his brothers saw this - namely that his father loved him more than all the other brothers - and they hated him could not speak a kind (or peacful) word to him. Genesis 37: 3 - 4
In commenting on this verse, RashBam, Rabbi Shmuel Ben Meir cuts right to the chase: "All of this caused the jealousy" between the brothers and Joseph. Even if in his heart of hearts Jacob does love Joseph more - for whatever reason - he moves beyond just feeling something and acts on it. He gives a special gift to one son, singling him out, leaving the others knowing the truth: Dad loves him more...Rashbam's statement is based on a principle taught in the Babylonian Talmud, 10b, by Rabbah bar Mehasia who taught in the name of Rav Hama bar Gurya who taught in the name of Rav:
"A person should never single out one child from among the others for it was precisely because of the two selah of silk more that Jacob gave to Joseph that his brothers were jealous, which grew into other things, and which resulted in our ancestors going down to Egypt."
Has your child ever come to you and told you that you love the other children, or child, more than you love him? Or that they are certain that the other parent favors another child? How do you respond? As parents, we need to constantly think about how our actions measure up to our heartfelt equal love of our children and how we make sure that each child gets the same measure of love even while that measure is delivered in a way that is tailor-made to the needs, interests and personalities of each child.
Because we know in our souls that we love each of our children deeply and equally, it can be easy to dismiss the questioning child. After all, WE know that we love them equally. But after our initial reaction, the question bears returning to, for our child is trying to tell us something about where they are at and what they need. Granted, there are times when one child takes three cookies and the other child gets two cookies and child two mistakenly translates the math problem into a judgment about being loved less, or more. In other cases, however, the child is sending us an important message and we should take the opportunity to reassess where we are on the meter of equal treatment - a quick check in so that we avoid the mistakes of the Jacob-Joseph-and his brothers relationship.
As we enter the colder, darker season of the year, this is a good time to reassess how we handle all of our interactions - places where we may show favoritism and not even know it. I hope that we can all question ourselves and answer honestly. And once we do, perhaps we can all be more careful in avoiding the pitfalls of favoritism, learning from the mistakes of our ancestors rather than replicating them.
Shabbat Shalom and Hag Urim Sameach/Happy Channukah.