In this Torah portion it is very difficult to understand why Yaakov favored Yosef over all his other sons and why Yosef’s brothers hated him to the point of selling him into slavery after having nearly executed him. Abarbanel makes it clear that even though all of Yaakov’s sons had attained a high level of spiritual perfection, Yosef was the only one who totally absorbed Yaakov’s teachings. Even though he was only 17, Yaakov recognized his superior intelligence and put him in charge of the family’s herds and flocks. Yet he lacked any trace of arrogance as he is referred to as a ‘youth’ in regard to the sons of the maidservants Bilhah and Zilpah. He attended them and deferred to them even though they were the least significant of the brothers. He considered Bilhah and Zilpah his father’s wives, not mere concubines. His self-awareness also allowed him to demonstrate humility and self-effacement.
Even the fact that Yosef brought an evil report about his brothers to his father is indicative of his superior character, for his intention was to improve their behavior. Yosef certainly did not slander them with his own opinion. Rather, he reported to his father in privacy what others were saying about them. Yosef’s actions were based entirely on his love for his brothers, not by a desire to elevate himself at their expense.
Yaakov’s love for Yosef was not the normal love of a father for his son. It was based on something deeper. When Yosef is described as “the son of his old age”, this hints at Yosef’s ability to relate to everyone in the family uniquely and individually. To his brothers he was a youth who respected their seniority. But he dealt with Yaakov with a gentleness and moderation which indicated that he saw himself as a true son, not just a youth deferring to the seniority of the father. Yaakov perceived this as a sign of his superior intelligence and character and therefore loved him more than the other brothers. Onkelos in his Aramaic translation conveys this idea as he renders the verse, “son of his old age” as “son of wisdom.” Yosef had none of the impetuousness of youth. He thought through situations carefully, acting quickly when necessary and being deliberate when necessary.
There are two reasons for the brothers’ hatred of Yosef. They were not able to understand that Yaakov did not find anything wrong with them. Rather, he favored Yosef because of his unique and unusual intellectual and ethical accomplishments. The brothers, however, were convinced that Yaakov was reacting to the slanderous accusations that Yosef had brought against them. We can assume that Yaakov chastised them without revealing the source of the information, as no father wants to create strife in his family. The brothers assumed that Yosef was the source of the accusations, and that was why Yaakov favored him.
Secondly, they believed Yosef would inherit everything and that they would be relegated to the status of sons of concubines. Just as Yishmael and Esav had been sent away, they too felt that they would be completely cut off.