In another life, I would have liked to be a family therapist to Jacob. “See”, he might say, slumping in the straw chair that I have right near the window, overlooking the Judean hills, “my grandpa tried to kill my dad, which that pretty much shut him off to the world. Yes, they never spoke again. We didn’t even live near him, especially after he remarried Hagar. What was he thinking? Anyway, not like my dad started out like a talkative guy, but seeing the knife? That really did it. And my mom? Just the opposite! She never takes no for an answer. If she wants to know what’s going on, she’d get G-d Himself to talk to her! Ah, four wives, and I still miss my mommy”.
We should wait because Jacob didn’t come to talk about his mom, or dad. There are other issues on his mind, but Jacob comes from a family that doesn’t talk emotions much. His dad, who loved his mom dearly, is not recorded speaking to her at all, while she only spoke to him once: on the verge of taking her life, Rebekah told Isaac that she’s had it (Genesis 27:46). His brother, likewise, could never quite express how he really felt about what was important to him. Notice, Esau only despised the birthright after he lost it, not before (25:35). Then why did he not say anything sooner? Maybe if the two brothers worked it out then, we would all have peace on earth by now.
By the time it came to Jacob’s own sons, he too followed his grandfather and father, and for his own reasons, favored the younger ones. In this week’s Torah portion Jacob opts to give Joseph a beautiful multicolored coat, a move that isn’t received well by his brothers, as if it’s not enough that the guy is walking around, telling everybody his dreams where all his family bows down to him. Someone should have maybe warned Jacob, but he’s like the rest of the family: once something pops into their head, that’s it. Some would say, stiff-necked; others would say, determined. Isn’t it funny how the same thing can be our greatest obstacle and our greatest strength at the same time.
We might wonder, what was it about joseph that made Jacob give him the coat? Why not anything else?? Jacob might have not known it but clothing around Joseph’s life becomes a significant matter. The first thing his brothers do when he comes to them is remove the embroidered coat which he was wearing. When Re’uven, the elder, comes back and sees that Joseph is gone, he tears up his own clothing. Later the brothers take the famous coat, and dip it in a slaughtered goat before sending it to their father, who in turn tears up his clothes in mourning.
Once Joseph was brought to Egypt, he was bought by Potifar, Pharoh’s court official, the chief of the cooks, and became successful. But behold, one day, Potifar’s wife “caught him in his garment and said: Lie with me! but he left his garment in her hand, fled and went out” (Genesis 39:12). Potifar’s wife told a different story to her husband: “The Hebrew servant whom you brought to us came to me to be playfully intimate with me, but when I called our loudly, he left his garment next to me and fled outside” (39:17-18). One again, Joseph was thrown in prison, and in the beginning of next week’s section, when Joseph will solve Pharaoh’s dream, he will be whisked from the pit, shaved and given a change of clothes. As he rises in power, he will receive new garments of fine linens.
Clothing is a complex matter, and not only for Joseph. The Hebrew word for it is begged, and the same root is used for both items to wear (bgadim) and treason (b’gida). That’s because clothing only represent outer appearance, which is often deceptive. The Torah specializes in things that are complex and thus dedicates much time to dress: Adam and Eve were naked and the first set of clothing was a gift to them from G-d, and much later, the Jewish people receive the mitzvah of tzitzit reminding us that the same things that can be a barrier can also be an opportunity to connect, for Joseph and for us.