The Torah introduces the events surrounding the sale of Yosef and his
descent to Egypt by noting that Yaakov had a special relationship with
him. “VYisroel ahav es Yosef mecol banav – He loved Yosef [more] than
other children (Bereshis 37:3), and he provided him with a fine woolen
garment, a ‘kesones pasim’. The Torah explains that the reason for this
preferential treatment was due to the fact that Yosef was the ‘Ben
Zekunim’ of Yaakov.
These are several interpretations of the words ‘Ben Zekunim’ offered by
our meforshim (commentaries). The simple meaning mentioned by Rashi is
that Yosef was born in Yaakov’s old age, and as we know, many parents have
a soft spot in their hearts for their youngest child. Rashi offers other
interpretations to the words ben zekunim – perhaps due to the fact that
the simple translation is vulnerable to two significant questions.
Firstly, Binyomin was eight years younger than Yosef, so why was Yosef
referred to as the ben zekunim and not Binyomin? Secondly, the first
eleven sons of Yaakov were born in close proximity to each other – all
were brought to this world in a span of seven years! Why, then, would
Yosef be considered ‘a child of Yaakov’s old age’ more than the others?
To address these issues, Rashi offers two additional, non-literal
translations of the words ‘ben zekunim.’ The first follows Unkelus, who
suggests that Yosef was the ‘wise child’ (the word Zakein is often noted
in the gemorah as an acronym for Zeh sh’KaNa chachmah, one who acquired
wisdom – even in one’s youth.) Therefore, the inference is that Yosef was
the wisest of Yaakov’s children. Rashi, quoting a Midrash (84:8), mentions
that Yaakov taught his son Yosef all the he had learned in the Beis
Midrash of Shem and Ever. Additionally, Rashi mentions that Yosef’s
appearance was similar to that of Yaakov – closely linking the two and
forming a special bond.
The Lessons of Shem
These explanations, however, pose their own questions as we delve deeper
into this matter. Why did Yaakov feel the need to transmit Shem’s Torah to
Yosef. What exactly was the ‘Torah of Shem’? Why did Yakov teach it only
to Yosef and not the other children? And how does this status of ‘ben
zekunim’ correlate to the gift of the special garment – the kesones pasim?
Many meforshim address these questions and point out that Yaakov taught
all his children the entire Torah that he learned from his father
Yitzchak. However, Yaakov felt that his ‘ben zekunim’ Yosef needed
additional Torah lessons – the ones that Yaakov learned from Shem, the son
of Noach. Yaakov had studied in the Yeshiva of Shem for fourteen years as
he was traveling to the house of Lavan.
The two rebbeim of Yaakov, Yitzchak and Shem, had very diverse
backgrounds. Yitzchak had the luxury of growing up in the protective
environment of his father Avraham. He never left the land of Cannan and
was not exposed to the immorality of the broader world to the extent that
his father and son were. Shem, on the other hand, was raised during the
generation of the Flood, where he was witness to the depravity of that
era – and the Divine punishment that was administered as a result of that
As Yaakov was leaving the shelter of his father’s house, he felt that he
needed ‘The Torah of Shem’ – lessons on how to retain his spiritual
compass – while living in the company of Lavan.
Passing the Torch
Now it was time for Yaakov to transmit these crucial lessons to Yosef, who
would soon be forced to spend twenty-two years in the spiritual challenges
of Egypt (the same amount of time that his father had lived with Lavan.)
Yaakov taught his wise child Yosef all the Torah life-lessons that he had
absorbed from Shem. It is interesting to note that there were exactly
fourteen years from the time that Yosef was three years old (the classical
age for chinuch to begin) until the time that he left his father’s home at
the age of seventeen.
I would like to suggest that there was powerful symbolism in the garment
that Yaakov gave Yosef. Kesones pasim is translated as either ‘a woolen
garment’ or ‘a multi-colored garment’.
Perhaps Yaakov was informing his beloved son Yosef that he would need
additional protection while spending time in the harsh spiritual climate
of Egypt. Cotton may suffice while at home, but the enhanced insulating
quality of wool will be required while spending time away from the shelter
of one’s family.
A similar message may have been delivered in the form of the multi-colored
nature of the garment. Yosef would need many skills to survive the
experiences that he would endure in Egypt. While his brothers were basking
in the glow of their father’s presence, Yosef would face slavery,
temptation, and perhaps his greatest challenge – power and royalty. Yosef
would need many tools in his kit, many colors in his palette, to remain
Yosef Hatzadik throughout these varied and diverse phases.
Yaakov’s investment and trust in Yosef bore fruit. Yosef was tested in so
many ways over the next twenty-two years, but remained steadfast in his
Torah values and a humble servant of Hashem – a ‘Ben Zekunim’ throughout.
Rabbi Horowitz is the founder and dean of Yeshiva Darchei Noam in Monsey, NY, as well as the founder and Program Director of Agudath Israel's Project Y.E.S. (Youth Enrichment Services), which helps at-risk teens and their parents. He is a popular lecturer on teaching and parenting topics in communities around the world, and is the author of several best-selling parenting tape and CD sets. For more information on Rabbi Horowitz's parenting tapes, visit http://www.rabbihorowitz.com/ or call 845-352-7100 X 133.