In Joseph’s colorful tunic, lessons about gift giving and receiving

Rabbi Roxanne Shapiro

By Rabbi Roxanne J.S. Shapiro

A “ketonet passim” (ornamented tunic/striped tunic/robe of many colors) caused all this mess? Joseph was hated for this?

It was not the tunic itself…but rather what it represented. Why should Joseph be blamed? He could not help that his father loved him the most…that his father loved his mother the most. He simply wore the robe his father gave to him.

“Now Israel loved Joseph best of all his sons, for he was the child of his old age; and he made him an ornamented tunic. And when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of his brothers, they hated him so that they could not speak a friendly word to him.” (Genesis 37:3-4, JPS Torah Commentary translation).

It was not just the tunic – it was all that it represented to his brothers. It was also Joseph’s failure, in regard to this gift and his dreams, to refrain from being boastful.

At this time of year, for those who give gifts for Hanukkah, (and for those who give and receive gifts at any time) the message that these verses give us is important. We should keep in mind that how we give and how we receive are just as important as what we give and what we receive.

When we give, let us give out of love and with hopes that our gift will be received gratefully. Giving the biggest and brightest gift does not always mean it is the “best.” Jacob may have wanted to give Joseph a beautiful display of ornamentation or colors, but it is challenging to believe that Jacob wanted to cause such strife between his sons. Reb Lakish said in the name of R. Eleazar b. Azariah: A man must not make a distinction among his children, for on account of the coat of many colors which our ancestor Jacob made for Joseph, “they hated him” (Midrash Rabbah on Vayeshev). Today, in this society, Jacob would have the responsibility, as a father, to not show such overt favoritism among his sons. In his giving of gifts, he would need to be thoughtful. So, too, we need to be responsible in our act of choosing and giving gifts.

Likewise, when we receive a gift that would be the envy of others or represent favoritism, we have to be careful about how we display this gift. Boasting or “showing-off” is not gracious. Joseph was delighted by the gift he received from his father, but the manner in which he “displayed” it around his brothers, caused their jealousy to increase. We cannot be sure if Joseph was overly boastful or not, but he still must have known how his brothers felt. Thus, it would have been decent of him to be more considerate of the feelings of his brothers. If we are so fortunate as to receive luxurious gifts, we must also take on the responsibility of being gracious recipients and still sensitive to the feelings of those around us.

It took Jacob the presumed loss of his son and Joseph many years of slavery, imprisonment, and then leadership experience to learn these lessons. Let us benefit from the knowledge of the mistakes and realizations of our ancestors and be thoughtful givers and recipients.

Parashat Vayeshev

Rabbi Roxanne J.S. Shapiro, is Rabbi-Educator at United Hebrew Congregation and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.