Yom Shishi, 3 Elul 5774
Friday, 29 August 2014
Parashat Vayeishev 2011

Parashat Vayeishev by Rabbi Ariel J. Friedlander
14th December 2011


This week’s Torah portion is one that I am often only able to refer to in song. Thanks to the then plebeian Andrew Lloyd Webber and his lyricist Tim Rice, many schoolchildren in the early 1970’s were encouraged to perform the musical version of our parasha – the story of Joseph. Thus, if I wish to remember all twelve tribes I must warble, “Reuben was the eldest of the children of Israel, with Simeon and Levi the next in line etc.”, I can find the tale immediately in the Torah because Potiphar (ok, the Narrator) tells us “it’s all there in chapter 39 of Genesis”, and I can usually get at least 26 of the 29 colours of Joseph’s coat.

I have always been fascinated by the Amazing Techicolour Dreamcoat, and this week decided to search for Joseph’s coat in the Amazing Technical Stratosphere that is the Internet. What first caught my eye was a Google ad for Joseph coats. That such things are for sale was a thrill for a rabbi to see. That this rabbi did not know a shearling and leather Columbus coat for £1590 was from the Joseph fashion label was a schande for her sisters. Next there was a site in Nebraska, where Joseph’s Coat is a “mission to share the love of Jesus Christ by providing food to families in need”. Joseph certainly fed the hungry, but he was wearing Pharaoh’s coat at that point. My final click found a lovely computer curriculum unit where students learn how to use a graphics programme by designing a model of Joseph’s coat.

It was time to find some Jewish sites, so I searched for k’tonet passim, the words used in the Torah (Gen. 37:3). It seems that rabbis have always been interested in this subject. There is much discussion about the decoration of the coat – is it embroidered, striped (the modern Hebrew translation of passim), illustrated or simply colourful? Is the material wool, or silk? Could it have been patchwork? How long were the sleeves? It was the midrash, however, that got my attention.

Tradition teaches that every word of the Torah is true. What we cannot understand is our own problem. Midrash explains some of the questions we have about the text. For example, who on earth was the son of Terach from Haran? Why did God pick him to be the first monotheist? Although the Torah says nothing about him until he is 75 years old, Midrash has many stories that show Abraham knew of the One God from the age of 3 years old through his teens working in an idol shop. As for Joseph, I want to know:  what was so special about his coat?

In the beginning, when Adam and Eve realised they were naked, even though this was proof that they had disobeyed a commandment, God made clothes for them to protect their modesty. The Torah tells us these were kotnot or, garments of skin (Gen. 3:21). The Midrash tells us that these coats were handed from father to son through the generations until Noah. Noah’s second son Ham stole them, and they descended to his son Cush and thence his grandson Nimrod (of Tower of Babel fame). Nimrod was killed by his hunting rival Esau, who took his coat. Then it gets a bit murky. Either Esau handed the coat to Jacob when selling his birthright OR when Rebecca “took the choicest garments of Esau her elder son which were with her in the house” (Gen. 27:15) that special coat was the one she took in which to dress Jacob. And that was the coat Jacob gave to his favourite son.

The God-made first ever item of clothing was supposed to represent care and concern for human feelings. Look what happened, though, to so many who wore or wanted to wear it. The coat led to theft, murder and enmity. It evoked hatred in Joseph’s brothers for being overlooked by their father. It sent Joseph into slavery, and ended up torn and bloodstained in the hands of his weeping father. Somehow it became a symbol of what had been lost for  those who felt dispossessed. It may have been elegant with a fine cut and good design, but it rarely brought luck to its owner. And it was only when the coat was ruined that Joseph was able to develop from a spoilt and sulky youth into a man of vision and wisdom.

I am rather sad to realise that the charming azure and lemon and russet and grey garment worn by Donny Osmond and Jason Donovan is more like the coat of Nessus (*). This discovery has reminded me, however, that intense resentment can build up for those who believe they are invisible. It is terrible to feel ignored, especially by a figure – parent, teacher, employer – whose approval you desire. Perhaps it is also terrible to pay attention only to that which is colourful, shiny, loud. As we enjoy the songs and the story of Joseph, may we learn to look into the shadows, and invite those that dwell there to join us in the light.

Happy Chanukah!

(*) Nessus was a centaur who vowed revenge on Hercules and sent his wife a poisoned coat. When she comes to believe Hercules has been unfaithful, Deianira gives the coat to her husband. It is the instrument of his death.