Joseph’s coat, modesty and restraint

RABBI CARNIE SHALOM ROSE

“Now Israel (Jacob) loved Joseph best of all his sons, for he was the child of his old age. Thus he had made for him an ornamented, multicolored tunic.”  (Genesis 37:3)

I have to admit that I have always been intrigued by Joseph’s famous coat of many colors, which is mentioned in this week’s Torah portion of Vayeshev. In part, it is a result of my own preoccupation with haberdashery; one of my few guilty pleasures. But more consequentially, because it appears that it is this striped tunic that serves as the straw that breaks the proverbial “camel’s back” in the already fraught relationship between our patriarch Joseph and his siblings.

Clearly, tensions existed between Joseph and his brothers long before Jacob bestowed this gift upon his favored child. However, it is only with the gifting of the coat that their aggravation and antipathy shift from strong dislike to abject hatred. In fact, when the brothers kidnap Joseph, their first act is violently stripping him of this garment as a way in which to dispossess him of any sense of himself as special, unique and elevated.

Some commentators suggest that the reason the tunic created such antagonism was because it became an outward symbol of Jacob’s yearning to strip his first born, Reuven, of his birthright and hand it over to a favored younger child; a theme that repeats itself many times over in our sacred writ.

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The great Biblical Commentator Rashi, quoting earlier Midrashic sources, points out that the four letters of the word Pasim (striped coat) presages many of Joseph’s future predicaments.

Rabbi Carnie Shalom Rose
Rabbi Carnie Shalom Rose

The name Potiphar, whose wife attempted to seduce Joseph, begins with the letter Pay, the first letter in the word Pasim, the striped coat.

The word Socharim, Merchants, to whom Joseph was sold as a slave by his vengeful brothers, begins with the letter Samech.

The name of those who acquired Joseph from the Midianites, the Ishmaelites, opens with the letter Yud.

And finally, the word Midianites, the people who first traded for Joseph, begins with the letter Mem.

Of course, for us post-moderns there must be more to this explanation than simply a quaint dissection of the use of Hebrew letters to form a somewhat opaque word in the Bible. So what might we learn, existentially, from this Rabbinic insight?

Likely, there are several important lessons to be garnered. However, for me the most consequential is the notion that we, often unwittingly, accept gifts that may at first blush appear to be deserved and beneficial, given earnestly and with love and true admiration, and yet sadly, turn out to be unwelcomed albatrosses. In our case, we have to wonder how the tale of Joseph and his clan might have turned out had Joseph refrained not from graciously accepting the well-intentioned gift of his father, but rather from flaunting it in front of his already resentful siblings. Though the narrative ends with Joseph as the Viceroy of the Egyptian Empire and thus able to sustain the Levant, the road to prosperity for the region and liberation four our people is a protracted and circuitous one. We can only wonder what might have been had Joseph shown a bit more modesty and a modicum of restraint.

As we return once again to the Bible’s engaging tales of Joseph, let us be open to the possibility that our predecessors not only teach by the acts they commit, but also by reminding us of those actions from which we should consciously refrain. For often, it is measured self-control that leads not only to clarity, but also to elevation of our deepest, most refined expressions of self.

With blessings for a Shabbat filled with insight and discernment.

Rabbi Carnie Shalom Rose is the Rabbi Bernard Lipnick Senior Rabbinic Chair at Congregation B’nai Amoona and a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical and Cantorial Association, which coordinates the

for the Light.

 

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