Parashat Vayeshev / The Parent-child Partnership Should Be a Two-way Street

Parents who have a partnership with their own parents and with God know they are not the center of the story and do not believe their children are larger than life.

'Joseph and Potiphar's wife,' by Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, AKA Guercino (1649).

Joseph the dreamer experiences four life crises, each of which could have ended in his death: His brothers decide to kill him, he is sold into slavery in a distant land, his boss’ wife accuses him of rape and he is sent to prison. But Joseph has a source of inner strength that protects him in impossible situations, as we see in this week’s Torah portion (Genesis 37:1-40:23): “Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his children… and he made him a coat of many colors” (Gen. 37:3).

Psychologists would say that Joseph knows how to enlist the help of father figures, because his object relations entail the presence of a loving father whom he knows how to find again and again. We may add that Joseph, whose father included him in his covenant with God, knows how to find such covenants with others who seek God, even if they call him by another name.

Parents who have a partnership with their own parents and with God know they are not the center of the story and do not believe their children are larger than life. In a home where neither parents nor children are deified, both can create a covenant while worshipping a being greater than themselves.

Joseph knows how to discern the dreamer’s hidden desires. He is saved from disasters, thanks to his ability to find new partnerships like the one he had with his father. His older brother Reuben rescues him from the pit. His Egyptian master Potiphar learns to rely on him and promotes him: “And the Lord was with Joseph, and he was a prosperous man; and he was in the house of his master the Egyptian. And his master saw that the Lord was with him, and that the Lord made all that he did to prosper in his hand. And Joseph found favor in his sight, and he ministered unto him. And he appointed him overseer over his house, and all that he had he put into his hand” (Gen. 39:2-4). The prison warden promotes Joseph to deputy warden: “But the Lord was with Joseph, and showed kindness unto him, and gave him favor in the sight of the keeper of the prison. And the keeper of the prison committed to Joseph’s hand all the prisoners that were in the prison; and whatsoever they did there, he was the doer of it. The keeper of the prison looked not to anything that was under his hand, because the Lord was with him; and that which he did, the Lord made it to prosper” (Gen. 39:21-23). And the chief butler will later tell Pharaoh about Joseph’s dream-interpreting skills: “And Joseph said unto them: ‘Do not interpretations belong to God?’” (Gen. 40:8).

Children whose parents include them in the covenant with God know how to find covenants with other parent figures: teachers, coaches, commanders, managers. These are the children who are sought after by parents who had a covenant with their own parents and who continue to forge such ties with their own children and students. This is the foundation of profound human collaboration – one for all and all for one, and not just satisfying one’s personal needs. When parents identify with their children and children identify with their parents, they can sometimes dispense with the competition between them. I allow my children to outshine me because their success is also mine – after all, I raised these ruffians.

If such a collaboration exists when the journey begins, it can be rebuilt, if it is damaged or only partial, by a teacher or therapist who can develop the same kind of collaboration and trust that existed in the original familial covenant.

Children who do not have a covenant with their parents will regard other parent figures as rivals. The son who does not identify with his father, who similarly does not identify with him, will sometimes attempt to outdo his father, to take his father’s wife or his inheritance during the latter’s lifetime. Conversely, he may avoid competing with his father, out of fear that the father may reject him totally or vanish, in the event of his offspring’s triumph.

In a true covenant, there is a connection between parent and child that involves collaboration, identification, competition, challenges and boundaries. When there is no covenant or it has been violated, one of these foundations might exist on its own but in an exaggerated, frightening form. For example, four father figures appear or are alluded to in the film “Brokeback Mountain,” and none of them has a covenant with his son, employee or son-in-law. One of them gives his “sons” – that is, employees – impossible assignments. Another sets cruel limits for his sons. The third father figure wants to usurp the glory of the dominant role for himself, and the fourth sees his daughter as his wife, his grandchildren as his children and his son-in-law as superfluous.

When the child’s connection with the biological parent involves participation in the parent’s covenant with God, the parent does not have exclusive rights to the covenant. In homes where fathers do not know how to invite their children to join them in this covenant, the invitation might come from the mother, or an uncle, sister, grandfather or teacher. The son who has not found a partner in his father during childhood may find a father who is willing to share his God with him.