The Genesis:3 Project
Now Israel loved Joseph best of all his sons, for he was the child of his old age; and he had made him an ornamented tunic. Genesis 37:3
Which one of your children do you love the most?
Not everyone is a parent. Anyone with an ounce of sense knows the correct answer is “I love all my children the same.” But it is not true. My own kids are now raising their eyebrows and wondering what comes next.
I am not suggesting that Tommy Smothers was right when he complained to his brother Dick that “Mom always liked you best.” But what is correct is that instinctively parents love their children the way each one needs to be loved.
If you want to see this idea in its brightest relief, look at a family in which one child has special needs. Whether the child’s physical or cognitive needs differ from typical children, parents attend to each of their kids in the way that is appropriate for their circumstances. A child who needs focused physical therapy is not loved better because of it; a child who reads at age three is not loved better for being given books at her reading level. Love is not about equality in a measurable sense.
All three of our kids had music lessons. Only one called it a passion. All three of our kids were on sports teams. Only one enjoyed it. All three of our kids had fears to face. Only one turned it into an art form. Did we love them differently for it? Absolutely yes. And in a given moment our love felt more abundant for one than for the others without diminishing that love for them all.
But I know families in which there is a “golden child.” The extra love and attention is undeserved – not because there is nothing unique about that child, rather because one or both parents are not attentive to the uniqueness of the others. Such a child was Joseph.
I have no insight into Jacob’s heart or mind. The Bible makes it pretty clear that his devotion to Rachel, and therefore her eldest son, exceeded his other familial feelings. The striped coat or, if you prefer, the coat of many colors was a gift that was unmatched to the other siblings. It’s not that Jacob did not know the distinctive qualities of his other children – he describes them each toward the end of his life. But we have no report that he ever showed compassion or attention to the other children. If he felt it, we do not know.
The result is catastrophic in the immediate sense and, as so much of the Torah goes on to demonstrate, down through the generations. While scholars who have a stake in making our ancestors look perfect find their justifications, reading the story without an agenda highlights the shortcomings of everyone involved. Privileging the favored son turns brother against brother, sister against sister.
Defending Jacob paves the way for the pretense that one people or one nation is more beloved than all the others. Beloved by whom? For the person of faith, perhaps it is God. For the student of history, perhaps it is the course of world events. For the ethnocentric patriot, perhaps it is the nations of the world. For the racial chauvinist…well, you know.
That’s not to say that sometimes there aren’t circumstances in which someone needs a little more love and attention. When a bully picks on your neighbor, you have to decide whether you will remain fair-minded and hear out both sides or show a little extra compassion to the victim. When a segment of the community is at a disadvantage, you have to decide between bootstraps and a helping hand. When your privilege gives you more than you need, you have to decide between holding tight or letting something go for the benefit of those with less than they need.
Here’s what not to do: don’t hand one person or one family or one community a striped flag to wrap around themselves because you love them more. That’s the wrong answer, unless you have a flag for all, the unum for our pluribus.
Maybe there is an argument to be made for gentler love and maybe one for tougher love. But there is not an argument to be made that, all things being equal (and they are), one child only gets ice cream with sprinkles for being good and the other child only must sit in the thinking chair for being bad.
People who come from families with a favored child fight the demon all their lives – even if they were the favored child. Communities and countries with favored groups will always contend with resentment – especially if the favor is ever taken from the group.
Which one of your children do you love the most?
The Genesis:3 Project
and also Basemath daughter of Ishmael and sister of Nevai’ot. Genesis 36:3
How do you choose a spouse?
To be honest, I originally wrote, “how do you pick a wife?” But even I have evolved beyond that particular formulation. Yet, that was the version that I thought about for a very long time. For at least three generations, my family chose their own spouses. One grandmother chose or was chosen three times – she outlived them all. Among my great-aunts and great-uncles, they all seemed to choose incredibly well, at least to my young eyes, even the ones who married their cousins. And though there were some breakups, one after many children and one after not very many hours, marriage was the preferred situation for all but a small number of the people I knew.
Marriage is an institution that long predates our contemporary ideas of romantic love. Sociologists and economists are better equipped to discuss the reasons marriage developed as it did. Historians can trace the evolution of two adults from various plural circumstances. And the Bible makes it clear that Esau married into the power elite of his day, speaking of marrying a cousin.
There was never a question in my mind that I would marry and have a family. It is what I always wanted, and as a result I was always falling in love and making plans. But for a very long time I was more captivated by the idea of being in love and getting married than I was in love actually. And what that meant was that it was not the right time for me to get married.
To my great fortune, the right time arrived at the same time as I met the right person. And this week on the secular calendar it is forty years since the day we stepped out of the wedding canopy as husband and wife.
I still marvel at the sheer luck that brought us together and the hard work that has kept us together. Dear friends have exhausted their patience with each other and thrown in the towel, including people we considered role models and mentors in the ways of life and love. Have we always been happy? The honest answer is most likely no. A friend of mine used to say that happiness was overrated – at least before his divorce. But the knowledge that happiness was a by-product of love was enough to make us acknowledge all the time that we never fell out of love.
When I teach about Shabbat, I always emphasize the blessings we give to each other every Friday night. Close to 2000 times in these forty years, I have held my beloved and told her, “Many women have done nobly, but you surpass them all” (it’s better in Hebrew). She, in turn, cradles me in her arms and calls me “companion, ineffably precious friend,” four words I rarely deserve but always crave. Every week we have decided to declare that our love is alive. So far, it has always been the truth, but there is nothing like speaking the words to make sure.
Did Esau love Basemat and her sister wives Adah and Oholibama (one of the great names in all the Bible)? Nobody knows. He became father to many children with them, and they, in turn, populated their tribes. The standards for a successful marriage were different back then.
I see the success of our marriage in very different terms. We have made each other better, though my wife had more heavy lifting to do than I did. We have guided our children to independence and seen each of them make choices that reflect our values and their unique understanding of them. We would rather be with each other than with anyone else, but we know well enough that by pursuing our own careers and interests we bring back gifts for each other every day.
I will admit that whatever insights I have are due to experience. If you had asked me my advice about successful marriage 25 or 30 years ago, I would have been making it up, though I would have gotten the Friday night part right.
But who would have guessed that, in the end, the secret seems to be gratitude. I have been loved all these years for who I am and believed in for all these years for who I could be. In and of itself, that’s no big deal. But when I wasn’t who I could be, I was still loved for who I am. If I had another forty years, I could never express my gratitude sufficiently. In return, I cherish the woman who is right in front of me and look with awe as she continues to surpass them all.
How do you choose a spouse? I know that it is a question that not everyone has the privilege to answer. In my case, I got lucky and found someone able to love me into being better than I ever hoped to be.
The Genesis: 3 Project
Come, let us go up to Bethel, and I will build an altar there to the God who answered me when I was in distress and who has been with me wherever I have gone. Genesis 35:3
I am not much of a mystic, but it does not prevent me from recognizing the mystery in the world around me (I hope). I can’t help but see intention in the great beauty of nature and in the capacity of human beings for extraordinary acts of kindness and courage.
In fact, the two most memorable spiritual experiences of my life (so far) were every-day events that I encountered for the first time. The first was sunrise over the Sinai desert. Standing atop the mountain identified by some as Mount Sinai, having climbed from an encampment below by the light of the moon and a flashlight, I watched the rising sun transform the darkness into purples and reds, oranges, yellows and browns. The long shadows of mountains to my east scampered toward the brightening sky, dragging the deep palate with them as momentary flashes of reflected light made it look as if the stars kissed the earth before retiring until the evening. Pockets of fog rose toward us and evaporated into the brightening air.
My senses were flooded. I have never experienced synesthesia, the experience of one sense responding to the stimulus of another, but I came pretty close to hearing the light and feeling the colors. My body was alive in a new way.
Rumor has it the sun rises that way every day. But not for me.
The other time was at the birth of my eldest child. I had never witnessed childbirth before, but I can tell you it is contagious. My wife had the hard work to do; my job was to stay out of the way. But as the baby crossed that threshold from utter dependence to full-on life, every cell in my body fired simultaneously with a palpable and independent energy. I was aware simultaneously of the tip of my big toe, the ducts in my kidneys and the roots of my hair. Were I not mesmerized by the scene I was witnessing, I believe I could have lifted off the ground to fly. And I had a sudden insight that produced the overwhelming urge to call my parents and apologize for everything.
By this time, the doc and his team were getting ready to put some other pending parents through the experience.
(BTW, our other two kids had surgical assistance coming into the world, broadening the focus of my attention from just the birth.)
Do I want to identify those experiences with an encounter of God? Yes, I do. But the reason I choose against mysticism has to do with my continuing battle against arrogating a knowledge of the unknowable to myself. If I was touched by God’s presence at those moments, I am grateful. If not, I am grateful still. However, insisting that God was in that place and I knew it gives me no credibility to disbelieve the claim that God selectively saves lives, bestows riches or, once every 108 years, permits a certain team to win the World Series. Seeing God in the narrow results of those multivalent moments makes for idolatry -- the idolatry of privilege.
I was privileged to spend a single sunrise on Mount Sinai out of millions. I was privileged to witness one birth out of billions.
The statistics do not diminish the power of my experience, but neither do they validate the uniqueness of anything other than my arrival at a particular place at a particular time.
Just before the verse that tops this short essay, Jacob told his entourage to discard their idols. Then he invites them to a tribute to his accessible and portable God. I might choose to frame the blessing of believing as Jacob did a little differently for myself – a God who is always present when I commit to being conscious of the divine potential in each place and time.
It is a mystery how that can even be possible. And there lies the limit of my mystical inclinations: to live my life prepared to acknowledge the mystery of God in a world that seems, most of the time, to present no evidence beyond personal conviction.
But would I have gone with Jacob to “Beth-El,” literally “House of God?”
Sure. You never know.
The Genesis:3 Project
Being strongly drawn to Dinah daughter of Jacob, and in love with the maiden, he spoke to the maiden tenderly. Genesis 34:3
I am watching the Bill Cosby story unfold, and I am profoundly sad. I have no choice but to presume him innocent until proven guilty, but I must admit that it would be one of the greatest and cruelest pranks in human history if he is the victim of a collaborative hoax.
The offenses of which he stands accused are familiar to most straight teenage boys. We all dreamed of having Svengali-like power over the objects of our affection – fair young maidens who swoon in our arms and do our bidding. We are magnanimous in conquest and indeed bestow tender mercies upon those we have ravished. And then it’s time for homework or school.
When I think of my own courtship behavior, even as a young adult, I am embarrassed. I know now that I objectified my female peers and probably presumed an allure that was more terrifying than seductive. Though I laugh when my dear friend and college roommate speaks of double-dating with all my “future ex-girlfriends,” from the distance of more than forty years, I get it.
My dad had a business partner who lived the life of a confirmed bachelor in the 1950s. He told the story of noticing a girl sunbathing on the balcony of the apartment just below his who was struggling to keep herself modestly covered. She looked familiar. Then he realized that she was the centerfold in the magazine he was reading at the time. Ha ha.
It was a funnier story before I had teenage sister and then my own daughters. I have no less appreciation for the female form, but as I aged I gained a greater appreciation for the female substance. If substance is dependent on form, if form trumps substance, if dominance must precede esteem, then the man has never escaped his boyhood. But add power and maybe fame to that boy and he is dangerous.
And if (I must say if) Bill Cosby is guilty, then the playful man who brought me such joy at almost every stage of my life abused us all, not just the women who were drugged and raped. It doesn’t matter if he loved them after he violated them, the way that Shechem did after he raped Dinah. It doesn’t matter if he loved us as he told sweet stories of family life and pudding pops. If some lobe in his brain or some place lower in his body was saturated with ill-gotten pleasure, then every laugh requires a shower.
That makes me sad, as well as the knowledge that for all his extraordinary talent, Cosby is not so different than any of us, except he never looked at his beautiful daughters and said, “How can I do to another parent’s child what would make me homicidal were it done to mine?”
The sexual impulses that drive us all can be vehicles of deep pleasure and mutual satisfaction. As they assert themselves in underprepared teenagers, they may cloud common sense, even among the most well-raised of sons. What is the age of mutual consent? Debate that all you want. But when is consent not required from either party? Never. Even if the hormones are surging. Even if love floods the senses after the fact.
“No means no” is a valuable reminder for the inexperienced. But for anyone whose acne has cleared and whose voice has changed, that lesson should be embedded. You can’t drug it away. You can’t demand a different answer. Your fame doesn’t entitle you to grab.
If he loved the maiden, if he were drawn to her, he never would have raped her.