By Bruce Kadden
It is said that clothes make the man. But in this week’s portion, Vayeishev, they have a great deal to do with the unmaking of Joseph. Two garments, the coat of many colors and the undistinguished garment Potiphar’s wife strips off of him, end up contributing to his trials, each being a catalyst for his descent to Egypt and to prison, respectively.
The first garment that gets Joseph into trouble is the coat of many colors, which his father made for him. The text says, “When his brothers saw that he was the one their father loved, more than any of his brothers, they hated him and could not bear to speak peaceably to him” (Genesis 37:4).
Did Joseph flaunt his special gift in front of them? Or was it simply the fact that their father showed favoritism to him with a beautiful present that so upsets them? It is obviously a very special garment; the term is used only one other time in Scripture, referring to the garment worn by King David’s daughter, Tamar, likely indicating her royal status (II Kings, 13:18). We can assume at the very least that Joseph wore it with pride and perhaps a bit of smugness at being singled out for this special gift.
In any case, when Joseph later approaches his brothers as they tend to their father’s sheep, they plot to kill him. Only Reuben’s intervention saves Joseph’s life. The brothers strip Joseph of his coat and throw him into a pit and then sell him to a caravan of Ishmaelites. Then they take Joseph’s coat, dip it into blood from a goat they had slaughtered, and bring it to their father.
Not wanting to lie to their father, the brothers ask “We found this; do you recognize it? Is it your son’s coat?” (Genesis 37:32). Avivah Gottleib Zornberg, in analyzing this story observes: “In thrusting Joseph’s coat, torn and bloodied, at Jacob, and in saying, ‘Please recognize it; is it your son’s tunic or not?’—they in fact feed him the words with which he interprets its meaning: ‘He recognized it, and said, “My son’s tunic! A savage beast devoured him! Joseph is torn in pieces!” ’ ” (Genesis 37:32–33, cited in Genesis: The Beginning of Desire [Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1995], p. 266). Jacob then immediately tears his clothes as a sign of mourning, which ironically mimics the tearing of the coat off of his son.
Zornberg sees a deeper meaning in Jacob’s words, which “express the brothers’ deep intent. The poignancy of the moment lies not in deception, but in the accurate, if unconscious, decoding of the symbolism of the coat. What the brothers had wanted to do to Joseph—indeed, what they had done to him—is truly articulated by their father.
“In a sense, the coat is Joseph. His brothers strip it from him as they fall on him, and before they cast him into the pit” (Zornberg, p. 266).
There were unintended consequences: Jacob no doubt thought that the gift of a beautiful coat would make up for the fact that Joseph, one of the youngest brothers, would be picked on by his siblings. Perhaps the gift of a coat would make him feel special. Not only is Joseph stripped of his garment, but also the very garment (along with his dreams) triggers his brothers’ jealousy and ultimately fools Jacob into thinking that Joseph is dead.
It is hard, though, to feel sorry for Jacob. After all, he had tricked his father into giving him the blessing meant for Esau with the help of a garment, the hairy coat that Rebekah wrapped on Jacob’s hands and neck so that he would resemble his brother (Genesis 27:16). Now, Jacob himself is fooled by a garment.
Joseph, meanwhile is brought to Egypt and purchased by Potiphar, an officer in Pharaoh’s court. Joseph quickly succeeds, with God’s help, and his master takes notice, putting him in charge of everything in his house. Everything, that is, except for Potiphar’s wife, who tries to seduce Joseph.
Joseph desperately attempts to fend her off, but when they were alone in the house, “she took hold of him by his garment, saying, ‘Lie with me!’ He left his garment in her hand, fled, and ran outside” (39:12). Joseph does everything right; but his garment—not the coat of many colors that he had earlier, but a nondescript piece of clothing [Hebrew begged]—will betray him.
Potiphar’s wife shows the garment first to the household servants and then to her husband, accusing Joseph of trying to lie with her. Just as Jacob falsely concluded by looking at Joseph’s garment that Joseph was dead, Potiphar falsely concludes by looking at a different one of Joseph’s garments that Joseph is guilty of wanting to lie with his wife. Potiphar immediately takes Joseph to prison. Once again, Joseph’s garment proves to be his undoing.
The word “garment” is used six times in Genesis 39, verses 12–18, calling attention to this key item in the story. Yet, in contrast to the “coat of many colors,” which he proudly donned earlier, this garment appears to have been plain.
James L. Kugel points out, “To modern readers, the word ‘garment’ might include all manner of expendables, from neck-ties to pocket handkerchiefs to vests or jackets, and Joseph’s abandoning his garment therefore has less significance for us than it should.” However, he adds, to a biblical Israelite, “the range of possibilities was narrower, and the resultant shame that would have been Joseph’s, as well as the financial loss (unless the garment could be recovered), far greater” (In Potiphar’s House: The Interpretive Life of Biblical Texts [San Francisco: HarperCollinsPublishers], 1990, p. 97).
So, perhaps the loss of this second garment was as significant as the loss of his first one, the coat of many colors. It certainly has a similar effect, once again causing Joseph to descend, this time to prison. Clothing, in and of itself of course, does not cause Joseph’s ills. But whether it is fancy or simple, a piece of clothing that becomes an object of jealousy, lies, and deception, can greatly contribute to one’s undoing.
Rabbi Bruce Kadden is the rabbi at Temple Beth El, Tacoma, Washington. Rabbi Kadden and his wife, Barbara Binder Kadden, RJE, have written extensively in the area of Jewish education, including co-authoring three books: Teaching Mitzvot: Concepts, Values and Activities; Teaching Tefilah: Insights and Activities on Prayer; and Teaching Jewish Life Cycle: Traditions and Activities. Visit Rabbi Kadden’s blog.