Parashat Vayeishev 5780

Cantor Tamara Wolfson – 20 December 2019

Amazing, Technicolor Torah

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat first premiered on the West End in 1973 and on Broadway in 1982. It has amassed a cult following and has been staged by more than 20,000 schools and amateur theater groups. For anyone unfamiliar with it, the musical is almost entirely sung, interrupted only a few times by dialogue.

I grew up going to countless Broadway shows, but somehow lived in New York for 29 years without ever seeing or hearing this musical. The very first time I encountered a production of Joseph was at a singalong showing at Limmud in December 2016. If you haven’t witnessed a room full of hundreds of Jews from around the world performing and singing this musical at the top of their lungs, I highly recommend it. I felt self-conscious not knowing any of the words, but the palpable joy and togetherness in that room made me forget my insecurities.

Now as we reach the story of Joseph and his technicolor coat in this week’s parashah, it’s hard not to sing it. We read ourselves in Tim Rice’s lyrics and hear ourselves in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music: our sibling rivalries, our meticulously-planned deceptions, our meaningful dreams and our joyous reunions. And the musical score encompasses nearly every genre one can think of, including parodies of French ballads, Elvis-inspired rock and roll, western music, 1920s Charleston, Calypso, jazz, and 1970s disco. Just as drastically different musical styles make up the through-composed score of the Joseph musical, we find a multiplicity of Rabbinic voices commenting on the details of the story. Take, for example, the description of Joseph’s amazing technicolor dreamcoat: in Hebrew, the ktonet pasim.

Rashi says that “pasim is a term for garment of fine wool… The same garment is mentioned in the story of Amnon and Tamar (2 Samuel 13:18) and we may therefore gather that it was made of very fine material. There is a Midrashic statement that in the word pasim we may find an allusion to all of Joseph’s misfortunes: he was sold to Potiphar, to the merchants, to the Ishmaelites, and to the Midianites.”

Ibn Ezra says that pasim is “an embroidered tunic. Passim is like pas yada (palm of the hand) in Aramaic.”

Sforno says that the coat was given “as a visible sign that Joseph was intended to become the leader of all the brothers both at home and in the field. The use of such distinctive clothing to symbolise someone’s elevated stature is found also in Isaiah 22:21, “I will dress him (Chilkiyah) in your tunic,” where it signals that authority is transferred to the one wearing the appropriate garments. The Talmud Baba Kama 11 also confirms that authority is signaled by the attire worn by people possessing it.”

Whatever fabric this coat is made from or why it was given, we know what it symbolizes: Joseph’s prime position as the favored son, interpreter of dreams, and leader-to-be. The coat of many colors, on scroll and on stage, has come to represent his and our trials, tribulations and dreams. So as we reflect upon Joseph, his story and the many ways it continues to inspire us, we might even dig through our own closets and find our own “coat of many colors”: a garment, an object, or even a memory that calls us to find the most amazing, technicolor versions of ourselves.

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