By David J. Seidemann, Esq.
Tomorrow is one of my favorite days and one of my daughter’s least favorite days. I will be speaking at Shulamith, the elementary school that my eighth-grader attends, a ritual I have engaged in for the last number of years. For some reason, they keep inviting me back for “literacy week.” I address the student body on the art of writing an interesting article. I discuss all the elements that go into developing an article as well as some secret techniques I have employed over the last seven-and-a-half years that I have been writing for the local papers.
I will talk about using humor, sarcasm, choice vocabulary, metaphors, analogies, and contrasts in developing storylines. The writer has so many tools at his disposal to try grasping the reader’s attention. An additional point I will make is never to take your audience for granted. That is to say, if you don’t have something intelligent to say, as often is the case with me, don’t say anything. Take the week off. Better a week of silence than a week of gibberish. I have taken off more than a few weeks from writing when I truly felt that I had nothing interesting or entertaining to say, or something to say but not an interesting or entertaining way in which to say it.
It is much more difficult to develop style than to decide on a topic. The world is abuzz with topics ripe for the picking. Time and effort, which can be in short supply sometimes, is needed to write in a manner that is unique and entertaining. We don’t always succeed.
Invariably during my presentation to the school, I say something that mortifies my child, who sits in the back crouched behind her friends. Tomorrow’s victim, my youngest daughter, is my fourth to attend Shulamith, and her fate awaits her in just a few hours. I cannot show favorites amongst my daughters, so she will have to grin and bear it, as her three older sisters have done in years past.
Our history, especially as we conclude the book of Genesis, is rife with sibling rivalries, often created by a parent showing favoritism towards one child. Sometimes the jealousy does not emanate from a parent, as in Cain and Abel’s case. But then there are Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, and Joseph and his brothers. In each case, parents favored one child over another with not-so-harmonious results. And who can forget the feelings of superiority that Joseph claimed the sons of Leah (Reuven, Shimon, Levi, Yehudah, Yissachar, and Zevulun) felt over the sons of the maidservants Zilpah and Bilhah (Dan, Naftali, Gad, and Asher)?
Joseph felt that the six sons of Leah looked down upon the four sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, and he reported this alleged lapse in behavior to their father Jacob, further stoking the discontent that permeated the family structure.
Eschewing favoritism amongst children does not mean that children are not to be treated differently. We are admonished by our Sages to educate each child according to his way. In our school system, we often fall prey to mass-producing or at least trying to mass-produce a certain type of boy or girl. It is a mistake that needs to be corrected before we develop a generation lacking interest in scholarship.
Joseph underwent many tests in his lifetime, but when his brothers came to Egypt and found themselves in the royal palace, it was his turn to test them. His decision to imprison Shimon until the brothers returned with Binyamin seems arbitrary. But a closer look reveals Joseph’s brilliance.
Joseph wanted to know once and for all if the brothers, the six sons of Leah, had conquered the part of their personality that made them feel superior to the four sons of Bilhah and Zilpah. There was one way to test. He would imprison one of the six sons of Leah and see if they would try to swap that son for one of the four sons of Bilhah and Zilpah.
If the sons of Leah would offer the prisoner exchange, Joseph would know that no progress had been made in correcting their character. On the other hand, if the sons of Leah allowed their brother to remain incarcerated until Binyamin arrived, without attempting to substitute one of the sons of Bilhah or Zilpah in his stead, then the flaw had been corrected.
Makes sense, but it still does not answer the question of “why Shimon?” Why not Reuven, Levi, Yehudah, Yissachar, or Zevulun?
There is a pecking order in Jewish law in terms of redeeming prisoners. A person’s father or rabbi comes before others. A kohen, a priest who is destined to perform Temple service, has priority, as does a king of Israel. A Torah sage and those who support Torah sages in their learning have priority over other individuals who are not Torah scholars and not supporting them.
Joseph knew that hierarchy and reasoned as follows:
“I need to see if Reuven, Shimon, Levi, Yehudah, Yissachar, and Zevulun consider Dan, Naftali, Gad, and Asher their equals. If I imprison Reuven, he is the firstborn. Were the brothers to attempt to exchange him for one of the four sons of the handmaidens, perhaps it is not because they think they are intrinsically better. Perhaps it is only because under Jewish law, the firstborn may be swapped for another non-firstborn. And if I imprison Levi, he is a kohen who also may be exchanged for a non-kohen. And if I imprison Yehudah, he is destined to be the king of Israel. Yissachar is the Torah scholar and Zevulun supports him financially. All of those six must be exchanged for another if at all possible.”
Had the remaining five sons of Leah moved to exchange one of their own in jail for one of the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, the matter would be inconclusive—Joseph wouldn’t know whether the swap was because they still felt they were superior to Dan, Naftali, Gad, and Asher or whether they were simply following Jewish law in terms of redeeming imprisoned firstborns, Torah scholars, supporters of Torah scholars, priests, and kings and exchanging them for persons not holding such special designations.
Shimon was the only son of the original six sons of Leah who carried no special designation, no special title. He was not a scholar, a supporter of scholars, a priest, a king, or a firstborn.
If the sons of Leah attempted to switch him for Dan, Naftali, Gad, or Asher, then it would be clear that favoritism and elitism remained part of their character traits. Only when Joseph saw that no such attempt was made to swap a son of Leah who had no special designation in terms of being redeemed for a son of Bilhah or Zilpah was Joseph convinced that the six sons of Leah had closed the sentence, the chapter, the article, the book, on a very interesting episode in our history.
And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a presentation to prepare. Beware, daughter number four—I do not play favorites. v
David Seidemann is a partner with the law firm of Seidemann and Mermelstein and serves as a professor of business law at Touro College. He can be reached at 718-692-1013 or firstname.lastname@example.org.