Judaism: Curious Cloak
Shira SmilesShira Smiles is a sought-after international lecturer, popular seminary teacher and experienced curriculum developer. A well-respected former Los Angeles teacher, she now lives in Israel, where she teaches at Darchei Bina Seminary and leads a number of women's study groups. Shira also trains Torah teachers in special workshops all over the world.
With Parshat Vayeshev we begin the journey of Bnei Yisroel as they move toward their unique destiny from a family to, eventually, nationhood. The centerpiece of the parsha that will provide the impetus for the unfolding history is the relationship of Yosef to his brothers and the involvement of Yaakov in that relationship.
Yosef is a “ben zekunim” to Yaakov/Yisroel, a child of his old age, and as such, Yisroel retains a special love for him and presents him with a fine tunic/striped coat. Our commentators wrestle with this whole episode, asking not only what is the symbolism of this coat but also why would Yaakov, who understood sibling rivalry so well from personal experience, put his children in a situation where jealousy could play such a destructive role. What could have prompted Yaakov to single out Yosef in such an obvious way?
Both Rav Chaim Cohen Hachalban and Rav Mattisyahu Solomon among others, point out that the reaction of jealousy seems silly and is beneath the dignity of the righteous brothers who were destined to become the ancestors of the Tribes of God. As Rabbi Scher continues, picking up a theme from the Ohr Pnei Chaim, these great men were so involved with service to Hashem that their very limbs moved instinctively to fulfill His wishes. Hashem had a plan for His nation, a plan He revealed to Avraham Avinu, that his children would descend to Egypt and be enslaved there. The reaction of the brothers to this coat was, in essence, an instinctive response to Hashem’s will so that He could fulfill this promise to Avraham. In hindsight, all is clear everything is for the good.
The Mishchas Shemen also focuses on the special love between Yaakov and Yosef. Using Rashi’s interpretation of ben zekunim, the son of his old age, he explains that Yaakov saw in Yosef’s very countenance that Yosef would be the successor in the transmission of the Abrahamic legacy to the rest of the nation and to the world. Having been born to an older father, Yosef would also be the beneficiary of having a role model who had already grown in wisdom and spirituality from his younger days, and therefore Yosef could buy into and establish that wisdom for himself.
The author of Ve’at Alit all Kulanah, points to an interesting change in the text. Although the parsha begins by using the name Yaakov twice, in the verse under study, the text reads, “And Yisroel loved Yosef more than all his sons …” The commentator sees this change of name as significant, indicating that both his love for Yosef and making him this special coat were the product of the Yisroel aspect of his persona as patriarch of the embryonic nation, rather than as a result of personal favoritism.
Combined with Rabbi Zev Leff’s commentary in Shiurei Binah, we have a beautiful insight into the makeup of our nation and the role of each of us within it. Yisroel saw in Yaakov the continuation of the total Abrahamic persona transmitted through himself and now onto Yosef. The nation would be comprised of many diverse characteristics, each tribe being the major vessel of a particular trait that would contribute significantly to the fabric of the whole. Each tribe would have its own role to play and its own purpose, but only together would they constitute one fully functioning, special entity.
But Yosef, like his father, was the one who encapsulated all these traits within himself and would be the one to lead the new nation along its destined path. In fact, Rabbi Leff reminds us, Yosef was meant to be the firstborn, for, if things had worked out according to Yaakov’s plan, Yaakov would have married Rochel first and Yosef would have been firstborn chronologically as well as symbolically. Yosef was destined to be the enabler for his brothers to reach their full potential. Yosef would precede them in Mitzrayim, providing food for his family and paving the way for the fledgling nation. Yehoshua, Yosef’s descendent, would lead the nation into the national homeland, and in the future, Moshiach ben Yosef will precede Moshiach ben Dovid for the final redemption. Yaakov/Yisroel’s love for Yosef emanated directly from his love for all his sons.
The special coat Yaakov gave Yosef, often translated as a coat of many colors, was a reflection of this national diversity. But the brothers did not yet understand their own uniqueness and how it would contribute to the whole, and they were not yet secure in their individuality. So while the gift to Yosef was important, its message was lost on the brothers because the timing was too early in the development of the multi faceted national characteristic.
A further affirmation of Yosef’s role is provided by the Shem Mishmuel. The Sochatchover Rebbe brings our attention to Yosef’s dream of the sheaves of wheat. In the dream, Yosef’s sheaf not alone stands up but remains erect. The Shem Meshmuel points out that while it may be difficult to stand up tall in the face of adversity, to retain that moral stance and remain erect in all circumstances is much more difficult. Yet Yosef had the inner strength to do so. Throughout his solitary sojourn in Egypt, both as slave and as viceroy, he maintained his relationship with Hakodosh Boruch Hu, the name of Hashem was always on his lips. Even, as Rabbi Pinto points out in Toras Yeshayahu, when Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce him, he remained true to his moral teachings. Although she could pull his coat off him, Yosef was still covered with the internalized spiritual teachings of his father, symbolized externally by the coat. Yosef remains the model of moral purity for his brothers and for the nation to this very day.
Yosef, then, was the son who would point the way to a Jew’s proper behavior in exile. Therefore, just as Yaakov studied in the Yeshiva of Shem and Ever before he left the sanctity of his home and went to the impure house of Lavan, so too was it now necessary to teach this same Torah to Yosef before the Egyptian exile, says Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetsky.
The Darash Dovid sees Yosef’s mission as the primary force in tikun olam, rectifying the world from the sin instigated by the snake in Eden. Along these lines, the mystical Shelah Hakodosh, parallels the coat Yaakov gave Yosef to the cloaks Hashem made for Adam and Eve as they were sent into the first exile, the exile from Eden. These cloaks would not only cover them, but would also remind them of their responsibility to rectify the effects of their sin. While before they had been enveloped in the primal light (ohr with an aleph), now they would be clothed in cloaks of skin (ohr with an ayin), the homonyms acting as a perpetual reminder of their new mission.
Developing this concept, Rabbi Goldwicht writes a fascinating discussion in Asufat Maarachot that traces the history of the garments Hashem made for Adam and Eve. Using the Medrash as a starting point, he reminds us that this was the garment Esau took from Nimrod and kept in his mother’s tent lest his wives steal it. This was the very same garment that Rivkah told Yaakov to wear as he entered his father’s room to receive the blessing and through which Yitzchak smelled the fragrance of the Garden of Eden. Through this garment, one could find a way back to Eden, to a special relationship with the Creator, no matter which exile we find ourselves in, whether the expulsion from Eden, the Egyptian exile, or in the long current exile.
How can a mere garment effect such transformation? A garment is a covering for the body. But, continues Rabbi Goldwicht, the body itself is merely a covering for the soul, the essence of man. We have to uncover the essence within ourselves, the Divine Ohr, light, that has become shrouded with the clouded sight of the physical world. Similarly, everything in the physical world came into existence only through God’s word, and therefore contains an element of spirituality. It is for us to remove the physical element, the animal skin, the ohr, and reveal the light (Ohr) within it.
Esau’s mission would have been to elevate the earthly to the Divine; after all, he was the man of the field. When Esau proved that he would remain strictly in the physical realm, selling his birthright for a measly pot of stew, this mission fell to Yaakov who now would be the inside man, the learner in the tents, as well as the outside man to repair the world to a state of sanctity.
Soon Yosef would be going down into exile in Egypt. He would need this reminder of Hashem’s presence in his daily life to help him remain true to his essence. Like the priests who wore special garments when they performed the service in the Beit Hamikdosh in the palpable presence of Hakodosh Boruch Hu, when they would take an animal or flour and oil and sanctity these physical entities to Hashem’s service, so too would a special garment’s memory signify Yosef’s special relationship and service to Hashem.
TheShvilei Pinchas continues the history lesson. When Yosef reveals himself to his brothers and tells them to bring the entire family down to Egypt, he gives them each a change of clothing as a gift, and to Binyamin he gives five changes of clothing. This clothing, posits the Shvilei Pinchas, is a reflection of the coat Yaakov made for Yosef prior to his descent into Egypt, which was in itself a reflection of Adam’s garment in Eden. This clothing represents the armor Bnei Yisroel would need to survive as a holy nation in such an impure environment and which Yosef shared from his own arsenal. And to Binyamin he gave five garments, alluding to the five royal garments that Mordechai, Binyamin’s descendent, would wear as he left Ahashuerosh’s chamber toward the end of the Purim story.
This in addition to the fivefold portion (chamesh yadot – five hands) Yosef gave Binyamin as the brothers sat down to eat with Yosef, alluding to the five ways Hashem would provide a miraculous victory to the Hashmonaen: “You delivered the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the impure into the hands of the pure, the wicked into the hands of the righteous, and the wanton into the hands of the diligent students of Your Torah.”
Both Purim and Chanukah represent a revelation of God’s presence at a time of hester panim, of His name being hidden and under wraps. Especially in the time of Purim, when the entire Megillah omits the very name of Hashem, we get a slow divesting of layers of hiddenness as one would disrobe from layers of clothing until the essence is revealed, until Bnei Yisroel would of their own volition accept the Torah once again as they did at Sinai, and embrace it. Therefore on Purim, we wear disguises and then remove them to reveal who we really are in our spiritual essence.
The Chasam Sofer picks up on the spiritual nature of this garment and reverses the donor/recipient order. Yosef, in learning his father’s teaching, is thereby accepting the blessing/responsibility of the Abrahamic mission. He is actually presenting his father with the greatest spiritual gift, giving Yaakov a spiritual cloak to feel the warmth of the legacy continuing. In reciprocation, Yaakov gave Yosef a coat of physical materials.
Each of us has within us a touch of the immortal Divine covered with many layers of the physical and mundane world. Our goal is to remove the material layers that cloak the spiritual sanctity within us. Our purpose is to bring some of the sanctity of Shabbos into our everyday lives, for on Shabbos, Adam and Eve left Eden with the clothes on their backs fashioned by God Himself as a sign that He would never leave them, with the aroma and spirit of Eden always near.
Summary by Channie Koplowitz Stein
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