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  • Writer's pictureRabbi Dr Saul Haimoff

Who is the Scapegoat in Your Family? (VaYeshev 5782)

In family therapy, the therapist often looks to identify the roles that each family member takes on. In 1981, Sharon Wegschneider-Cruse published a book that described various dysfunctional archetypes of family roles that members play, including: The Hero, The Scapegoat, and The Lost Child.

The Hero is often the child that tires to overcompensate for the family dysfunction. He/she feels pressure to make the family look good by being successful. The Hero tends to be an overachiever, a perfectionist and “a fixer”. The Hero also covers up their own problems and harbors a dysfunctional belief that they need to be good in order to not add more stress to their parents.

The Scapegoat plays the opposite role of The Hero. He/she represents all that is wrong with the family. This family member absorbs all of the dysfunction and negativity of the family unit and is an easy target to blame. The Scapegoat is often a child and the identified patient of a family beginning family therapy. Interestingly, The Scapegoat also plays the role of the truth teller, and instead of covering up the problem as The Hero does, they act out or even verbalize the problem. Sometimes The Scapegoat child has explicit behavioral problems and receives a lot of negative attention.

However, the problems of The Scapegoat can also be more subtle and outside the realm of their control. For instance, a child born out of wedlock, or from a previous marriage, or with a disability, can become The Scapegoat and be treated by the parent(s) as subconsciously representing everything that is wrong with the family. Often times when families are dealing with a lot of stress, they need someone to blame for their problems, and the child who is draining most of their resources (e.g. therapy, doctor appointments, school issues) is an easy target.

This week’s parsha, VaYeshev, begins the epic saga of Yosef (Joseph) and his brothers. I believe that Yosef plays the role of The Scapegoat in his family. He is the truth teller, the one who openly verbalizes the problem behaviors of the family, as we see in the second verse of the parsha (Genesis 37:2):

וַיָּבֵא יוֹסֵף אֶת־דִּבָּתָם רָעָה אֶל־אֲבִיהֶם

Joseph brought bad reports of his brothers to his father

Although he is his father’s favorite child, and perhaps we can assign him the role of The Hero, in truth, Yosef absorbs all of the negative feelings and takes on the identity of the problem child. Even his father, Yaakov (Jacob), who clearly shows him favoritism, expresses anger at him after Yosef publicly describes his second dream (Genesis 37:10):

וַיְסַפֵּר אֶל־אָבִיו וְאֶל־אֶחָיו וַיִּגְעַר־בּוֹ אָבִיו

And when he told it to his father and brothers, his father (angrily) scolded him . . .

The brothers see Yosef as the problem in their family, and the reason for the dysfunction. They harbor negative feelings towards him and are determined to remove him from the family.

When the Torah highlights issues of family dysfunction, I find that it often portrays it in extreme ways in order to fully drive the point home. Psychodynamic therapy is characterized by attempting to make the unconscious - conscious. Meaning, a client in therapy is encouraged to express their most deeply rooted, primal urges, so that they can be processed in a therapeutic way. Even though these thoughts might be scary to say out loud, turning feelings into words is a very healthy way to deal with uncomfortable thoughts and emotions. So when the Torah tells us that the brothers eventually want to kill Yosef, I believe that it is highlighting the primal desire of family members to get rid of the scapegoat. They even dip his famous coat in goat’s blood!

Many people experience heightened levels of stress and anxiety around the holidays because of family gatherings and meals. When we return to our family of origin, it is common for these dysfunctional family roles to play out again. Try to be aware of the role you and your family members take on, and if need be, enlist the guidance of a competent family therapist to help with working it through.

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