וְיִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל אָהַ֤ב אֶת־יוֹסֵף֙ מִכָּל־בָּנָ֔יו כִּֽי־בֶן־זְקֻנִ֥ים ה֖וּא ל֑וֹ וְעָ֥שָׂה ל֖וֹ כְּתֹ֥נֶת פַּסִּֽים׃.
Just two little words, yet so much lore surrounding them.
The meaning of the words is unclear, and scholars have offered a variety of translations. A long sleeved coat. An ornamented tunic. A striped coat. A multi-colored coat. A patchwork coat.
The Hebrew “pas” means palm or sole, and it is from this that scholars conjecture that it was a long-sleeved garment or a long-length garment.In Aramaic, it can mean “piece.” The Latin Vulgate renders k’tonet passim as a tunica polymita, a coat made of pieces of different colors.
Whatever it was, it was special is some way. Yaakov made it for Yoseif. Notice that, by the way. The text doesn’t say that Yaakov gave it to Yoseif. It doesn’t say that Yaakov had the coat made for Yoseif. In plain meaning it says Yaakov made it for Yoseif.
Now, it would be easy to write this off (pun intended) to literary license. How likely is it that Yaakov actually made the coat for Yoseif himself? On the other hand, how unlikely is it that Yaakov actually made the coat for Yoseif? Was making clothing solely women’s work in ancient times? In our desire to see ancient societies as less advanced than we are, we may be coloring the realities.
Clearly the coat was given to Yoseif as a symbol of Yaakov’s deep and abiding love for his favorite son. Let’s skip over the problematic bad-parenting aspects of this for now. I’ve written enough about that before. Perhaps the coat gave Yoseif an overly-elevated sense of self-worth, further inciting the jealousy of his brothers. Was this the intent of this gift from Yaakov? Was the jealousy merely an unintended (if entirely foreseeable) consequence? I’m not trying to give Yaakov a pass on bad parenting here, just trying to take it out of the discussion for now.
As I mentioned, the coat has given rise to all sorts of lore. Perhaps the most widely-known example in our own time is the musical “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” by Mssrs. Weber and Rice. It’s not an entirely accurate staging of the biblical text, but it’s a fun romp. I’ll admit to a fondness for this musical despite its inaccuracies. However, there’s another piece of music based on the coat story that, despite its somewhat trite and contrived nature, speaks to me.
Dolly Parton wrote a touching song entitled “Coat of Many Colors.” (You can find the lyrics at http://www.dollyon-line.com/archives/lyrics/coatof.shtml ) It tells the tale of a loving mother from a poor family who related the biblical story of Yoseif as she crafted a beautiful coat of many colors for her daughter from a box of rags. She sewed the coat with love in every stitch. At school others made fun of the young girl’s coat of rags, while she tried to explain to them how rich the coat made her feel.
One is only poor
Only if they choose to be
Now I know we had no money
But I was rich as I could be
In my coat of many colors
My momma made for me
This coat and Yoseif’s coat are symbols, representations or physical, tangible manifestations of love. Yoseif’s brothers teased him about the coat, only in their case it was likely their jealousy that drove them. Might this also be the case with the teasing students in Dolly’s song? Perhaps, somewhere deep down inside, they understood the love that this rag coat represented, and they too, were jealous of that love?
We are at a season of the year when love is often represented (or perhaps misrepresented) through physical substitutes – gifts. I’ll side-step the whole discussion about gift-giving and Hanukkah and its connection to gift-giving at Xmas. Though sometimes the gifts are given more out of a sense of obligation, they are, hopefully, often given as symbols of love, in its many forms.
While we still see examples of gifts that people actually make for someone they love (both children for parents and relatives, and vice versa) I am sure these have become more the exception than the norm. Yaakov didn’t have access to malls, gift cards, or Amazon. He may or may not have had someone else make the coat he gave to Yoseif-we can’t be sure. For thousands of years gifts given were hand-made with love. Over time, more and more people came to depend upon others to make the gifts they would give. Does this make them lesser expressions of love?
It would be easy for me to wax nostalgic and complain about the “impersonal nature” of modern-day gift-giving, with gift cards and certificates, wish-lists, and more.It would be just as easy for me to rationalize the trends of modern-day gift-giving, and say that, done with proper intent, it is no less meaningful. Not surprisingly, I think I’ll walk the line somewhere in between the two positions.
When we receive gifts, especially extra-special ones like Yoseif’s k’tonet passim, we may feel very enamored with ourselves for inspiring love for us in others. Perhaps this is because we all want so desperately to be loved, and any symbol of that love, especially a tangible one serves as proof of that love, and G”d knows we all want that bit of security. This is a dangerous road. It is, perhaps, our yetzer hara, our evil inclination, that causes us to feel puffed up when we receive these signs of the love of other people. The gifts are symbols. They are not love itself. They can be an expression of it, but love is much more complex than that. It has many facets and aspects.
We all know that a cigar band can be a more loving and meaningful gift than the most expensive diamond ring. At the same time, an expensive piece of jewelry can be a very real expression of love. It is not our place to judge the value systems of others. It is, however, worthwhile for us to try and understand and know the value systems of others. Even people deeply in love can have very different value systems.
As I try to remind myself (and you, dear readers) at times, these are sometimes truly random musings, and today I’ve wandered down many paths, and I’m not sure they all lead to the same place. I’m not sure I can tie this all up in a nice bow. Then again, Torah often doesn’t wrap things up nicely, so I’m in good company. Nevertheless, these parting thoughts.
Whatever the k’tonet passim was, it was an expression of love. What imbues it with that love? It can be the personal nature of it having been created by the giver. It can simply be the thought or intention behind the gift. Rather than focusing on the methodology, or even the intent, how about trying to focus on the process itself – of giving as an expression of live. Imbue every gift you give, to anyone, with love. Even that “secret Hanukkah Harry” exchange gift at the office. Sure, maybe you bought it out of a sense of obligation. Maybe you bought someone a gift simply because you know they got one for you. None of that matters. Even the simplest trinket can be imbued with, and given with love.
I would be remiss in my thoughts if I did not suggest that, in this season of giving and receiving gifts, that we consider sharing and giving not just with those in our circles, but with those in need. Many families and congregations have established traditions of setting aside at least one night of Hanukkah to be one of giving to the needy rather than receiving gifts from one another. (In some families, that is true for every night of Hanukkah.) In fact, one of the best gifts you night get for someone that you love is a tzedakah box. It’s a gift that enables them to give to those in need. What could be more meaningful than that?
Hag Urim Sameakh, and Shabbat Shalom,
©2012 by Adrian A. Durlester
Other musings on this parasha:
Vayeishev 5772 – The Ram’s Horn Rag
Vayeishev 5771-Ma T’vakeish?
Vayeishev 5768 – Strangers Walking Together
Vayeishev/Hanukah 5767-I Believe in Miracles
Vayeishev 5766-Who Was That Guy?
Vayeshev 5761 – In Gd’s Time
Vayeshev 5765-Mikol HaMishpakhot HaAdamah
Vayeshev 5758-What’s Worth Looking After