Parshat Vayeshev

Torah Reading for Week of December 3-9, 2017

“Are We What We Wear?
By Rabbi Min Kantrowitz, ‘04

The views expressed in this drash are those of the author. We welcome Torah insights and teachings from all viewpoints, and encourage dialogue to strengthen the diversity of our academy.

The language of clothing is high symbolism.  In contemporary societies, such as in corporate America where the ‘power suit’ is recommended for women seeking high office, in Israel where the size of one’s kipa is used as an indicator of religiosity, and in some European countries where governments can falter over issues of head covering, the suggestive power of what one wears over one’s skin remains a highly charged issue.

This is strongly reflected in Parshat Vayeshev, where garments are used to disguise and deceive, to identify and to indemnify.  Throughout the parsha, external appearances drive the narrative, while inner motivations are expressed through issues revolving around clothing.

Let’s talk about Joseph’s coat.  Often described as ‘ a coat of many colors’, the Biblical text “ktonet passim’, has been translated as “a long colorful coat”, or “ an ornamented tunic”.  Clearly it was something special, unusual, probably expensive and meant to differentiate Joseph from his brothers.  The specialness of this garment gave Joseph his identity as the favored son, increasing the probability of his brothers’ jealousy. It was the identity marker that drives the narrative forward.

That same coat is used to deceive.  Before throwing Joseph into the pit, his brothers stripped him of his coat, thus removing his identity.  Intending to deceive Jacob, they dipped the coat in blood.  “The brothers had the ornamented tunic taken to their father, and they said, “We found this. Please examine it; is it your son’s tunic or not?” (37:32).  When Jacob was presented with the coat, the deception was complete; the brothers did not lie, they allowed Jacob to equate the coat with Joseph’s identity; if the coat was bloody, then so must Joseph be.  Fraudulent evidence led Jacob to the wrong conclusion.

Mourning, Jacob expresses his grief through his clothing, tearing his robes and placing sackcloth on his loins.

Later in the Parsha, Tamar disguises herself as a prostitute, using garments to deceive Judah.  She begins by removing her ‘widow’s garb’, the items that marked her identity as a widow, and replaces them with a veil.  This clothing choice advertises her status as a harlot.  She does not lie.  She allows her clothing to lie for her.  The clothing becomes her identity.

In return for her sexual favors, Tamar asks for payment: “Your seal, and your wrap (some translations say bracelets or cord) and the staff in your hand”.  These items of apparel can clearly be identified as belonging to Judah, identity markers being cleverly collected to be later used to Tamar’s advantage.  This tale uses items of clothing as mechanisms of deception and entrapment, although for a cause deemed acceptable since it ensures the succession of what would become the Davidic line.

Then there is Potiphar’s wife, sadly unnamed, as are many Biblical women.  Lusting after Joseph because of his attractiveness, (he is described in 39:6 as “well built and good looking”), she pursues him.  In a scene which one could imagine on the silver screen, she “grabbed him by his garment, saying ‘Sleep with me!” He left his garment in her hand and fled, going outside. (39:12).  Which garment was left in her hand is left to our imagination.  The garment, or lack of garment, strengthens the imagery of this attempted seduction.  Mrs. Potiphar then uses the garment to try to frame Joseph, fraudulent evidence that Mrs. P hopes will attest to her innocence and Joseph’s guilt.

Today, our clothing choices can perform the same functions: they can distract the public from considering serious issues by turning the focus on the garments rather than the underlying issues (think: women wearing tallitot at the Wall); they can deceive the public into believing false images (think: Photoshop); they can identify someone’s status, or mislead about it.  Since the external apparel with which we cover our skin is highly symbolic, perhaps the conversations about ‘best dressed’ lists are not as trivial as they might seem.  School uniforms are external equalizers, but beneath our clothes, our identities are unique and we cannot deceive ourselves.