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Wednesday, November 28, 2007


When mapping out the Yosef story, clothing is Chumash’s language of choice. Yosef exchanges attire no less than six times and each example marks a new stage in his development.

To understand the significance of Yosef’s garb, we have to comprehend how Sefer Breishit employs clothing. We have
four explicit examples: Adam and Hava conceal their nakedness (3:21), Rivka covers her face from her fiance(24:65), Yaakov hides his identity in Esau’s dress (27:15), and Tamar shrouds herself in the clothes of a harlot (38:14). In all four cases, clothing is a means of concealing. Be it flesh or identity, clothing serves primarily to restrain something troubling which lies within.

Yosef breaks the mold. The Ketonet Pasim, or "many colored coat," can be summarized in one word: loud. It’s a vivid
symbol of pride, a constant expression of Yosef’s preferred status. Understandably, this offends the brothers, and their response strikes right on target: Yosef the body survives their attack, while Yosef the garment – the narcissistic and intolerable personality traits - lies torn, bloodied, . . . assassinated.

Does Yosef take the message to heart? He regains preferential treatment, this time in the house of Potiphar, which accords him both honor and privilege. For a man of entitlement and self-absorption, Eishet Potiphar sets a perfect trap. Faced with a choice between exercising his power –
“Do I not deserve her?” – and the will of a moral God, Yosef conquers his ego and refuses her.
ח וַיְמָאֵן--וַיֹּאמֶר אֶל-אֵשֶׁת אֲדֹנָיו, הֵן אֲדֹנִי לֹא-יָדַע אִתִּי מַה-בַּבָּיִת; וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר-יֶשׁ-לוֹ, נָתַן בְּיָדִי. 8 But he refused, and said unto his master's wife: 'Behold, my master, having me, knows not what is in the house, and he has put all that he has into my hand;
ט אֵינֶנּוּ גָדוֹל בַּבַּיִת הַזֶּה, מִמֶּנִּי, וְלֹא-חָשַׂךְ מִמֶּנִּי מְאוּמָה, כִּי אִם-אוֹתָךְ בַּאֲשֶׁר אַתְּ-אִשְׁתּוֹ; וְאֵיךְ אֶעֱשֶׂה הָרָעָה הַגְּדֹלָה, הַזֹּאת, וְחָטָאתִי, לֵאלֹהִים. 9 he is not greater in this house than I; neither has he kept back any thing from me but you, because you are his wife. How then can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?'

In portraying Eishet Potiphar's futile attempt, the Torah sets up a
truly fantastic parallel:

יב וַתִּתְפְּשֵׂהוּ בְּבִגְדוֹ לֵאמֹר, שִׁכְבָה עִמִּי; וַיַּעֲזֹב בִּגְדוֹ בְּיָדָהּ, וַיָּנָס וַיֵּצֵא הַחוּצָה. 12 that she caught him by his garment, saying: 'Lie with me.' And he left his garment in her hand, and fled, and got him out.

Just as the brother's tear away Yosef's cloak, Potiphar's wife rips off his clothes. Whereas the first gash signaled the beginning of Yosef's great fall, the second ushers in a noble return.

After twelve years of incarceration, he changes out of his prison clothes (41:14) and presents himself to Pharoah. Once more, Yosef wins preferential treatment, this time in the eyes of Pharoah himself.
מב וַיָּסַר פַּרְעֹה אֶת-טַבַּעְתּוֹ מֵעַל יָדוֹ, וַיִּתֵּן אֹתָהּ עַל-יַד יוֹסֵף; וַיַּלְבֵּשׁ אֹתוֹ בִּגְדֵי-שֵׁשׁ, וַיָּשֶׂם רְבִד הַזָּהָב עַל-צַוָּארוֹ. 42 And Pharaoh took off his signet ring from his hand, and put it upon Joseph's hand, and arrayed him in clothes of fine linen, and put a gold chain about his neck.
Yosef's most challenging moment soon follows. Yet again, Yosef stands before his brothers in exceptional clothes and a position of power. The very siblings who destroyed his colored coat appear before a Yosef re-dressed. This time, however, Yosef does not flaunt his garments or the status they represent; he reverts to classic Breishit model, concealing his identity with his clothing (see 42:7). Indeed, he moves past that precedent. In the ultimate act of Tshuva, he provides the brothers with a highly symbolic reconciliation gift:
כב לְכֻלָּם נָתַן לָאִישׁ, חֲלִפוֹת שְׂמָלֹת. 22 To all of them he gave each man changes of raiment

Ultimately, Yosef uses his power not to set himself apart, but to weave each member of Bnei Yisrael their own Kitonet Pasim.

QuickNotes for the Shabbos Table
-Clothing is a major theme in the Yosef stories
-A change of clothing consistently means a gain in status, losing his clothing means a step down
-The Ketonet Pasim symbolizes his early flaws; the brothers tear and reject that part of him.
-Chumash contrasts the brother’s removal of his clothing with Eishet Potiphar’s tearing of his cloak: this time he makes the right set of choices
-When his brothers appear in Egypt, it's a Ketonet Pasim story all over again: this time instead oflaunting his power, he conceals himelf.
-In fact he learns to use his status for good, when he provides his brothers with their own sets of fine garments.

-Potential Message: How to deal with the special talents and abilities each of us have. Are they for our own self-aggrandizement, or should we realize the added responsibilities they confer on us? Should we use them to set ourselves apart, or to raise everyone up with us? Note the fine line between tzaddik and rasha: both have the exact same skills, its just a question of how we use them.

1 comment:

Chana said...

I love this.

I particularly like the idea that his concealing himself within his clothing (as king) and theoretically the whole instance where he now has a beard contrasts with the flamboyant initial kesones pasim.

The only question I have is- it's Jacob who gives Joseph the kesones pasim; it's not as though he went and made it for himself. If these traits were his own and his own fault, shouldn't it be the latter? Perhaps it is Jacob who inculcates them in him- just as he gives him the garment.