Commentary for Vayeishev

12 Dec

There is an old saying that “the clothes make the man.” Obviously this is not true, as everyone has different skills, abilities, strengths, weaknesses, likes, dislikes, and experiences that make us the complete individuals that we are, but there is some truth to the idea that you can learn something about someone by examining the clothes that he or she wears. The best example of this is found in military uniforms. We know who is a lieutenant, who is a colonel, who is a major, and who is a general because they all have different numbers of stripes, stars, and pips on their uniforms. If you put a general in a cadet’s uniform, no one would listen to him unless they knew him personally and knew him to be a general because his uniform is what informs everyone of what authority he has.

In this week’s parshah we begin to see Joseph’s skill for management. Despite being born eleventh of the twelve, Joseph is placed in charge of his brothers, and given a fancy coat to signify his authority. While the text makes no bones about the fact that Jacob’s decision to place Joseph in a position of authority was influenced, at least in part, by favoritism, it also becomes quite clear that management is an area in which Joseph was particularly skilled. After being sold into slavery, he rises up through the ranks and becomes the overseer of Potiphar’s household. After he is thrown in prison in Egypt, the warden recognizes his skills and makes him the chief prisoner, responsible for organizing all of the others.

It is interesting to note that both times that Joseph loses his position of high authority in this week’s parshah are immediately preceded by his clothes being torn and used as evidence against him. Before his brothers sell him into slavery, they rip off his fancy striped coat so they can dip it in goat’s blood to convince their father that Joseph has died so that he will have to pick another overseer for them, and Potiphar’s wife rips Jacob’s robe and uses it as evidence to falsely accuse him of raping her after he resists her advances. In both cases Joseph is stripped of his uniform and the authority it grants him, but manages to work his way back up the totem pole by using the God-given skills that earned him that authority in the first place.

Like Joseph, we often end up in situations where we feel like we have lost something that was an important part of our self-identity. When we feel this way, it is important to follow Joseph’s example and remember that our successes are a result of our God-given skills and abilities- of the things that make us the unique individuals that we are- and that if we apply ourselves and use those skills, there is nothing stopping us from climbing right back up to the mountaintop.

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