Driving Out the Darkness: Vayeshev 5776


On a weekly basis, and sometimes every day, we hear of horrid incidents when a person’s internal state of jealousy, anger or hatred is expressed in violence. Until that moment there is the possibility that their rage may subside or be sublimated in a non-destructive fashion. That decision point, when a person either pushes back at the darkness, or plunges fully into it, is a fateful moment which can lead to life or death for them and their neighbors. Dark thoughts may lead to dark deeds, but until they do, there remains the chance that light can banish darkness, and calamity can be averted. 

One of the most poetic and profound examples of the link between jealousy and violence is the speech made by God to Cain prior to his murder of Abel. Cain is jealous that his brother’s sacrifice has been preferred to his own, and his “face falls.” Robert Alter translates the divine poem thus: Why are you incensed, and why is your face fallen? For whether you offer well, or whether you do not, at the tent flap sin crouches, and for you is its longing but you will rule over it. Of course, Cain does not rule over his sin—his jealous rage—but allows it to rule over him. Sin longs for Cain, and Cain longs for sin, so it wins and the earth absorbs Abel’s blood. The rest of Genesis builds upon this theme of jealousy and violence between brothers, offering only tentative steps towards reconciliation. The culmination of this theme is the saga of Jacob’s twelve sons.

From the outset of Parashat VaYeshev, Joseph inspires jealousy and hatred in his older brothers. The striped tunic given him by Jacob becomes a symbol of his beloved status and of their rage. It is no accident then that the moment when rage turns to violence involves the tunic. When Joseph arrives in Dothan, seeking “the peace of his brothers,” they instead “strip Joseph of his tunic, the ornamented tunic that he had on him.” This attack is not the beginning of their hatred, nor is it the first clue to the inner state of the brothers. They had earlier challenged Joseph on his dreams of domination. But this moment is the point of no return, when they grab their brother, rip off his despised tunic and throw him into a pit.

Rashi notes that the tunic was the “extra” item given to Joseph and not to his brothers. He implies that the tunic was the cause of the jealousy, an idea endorsed by Hizkuni. Yet Rashbam rejects the notion that the tunic is mentioned because it caused the jealousy. Rather, it is mentioned here because it will become the mechanism for deceiving Jacob into thinking Joseph has been mauled to death. The tunic is a crucial connector of the larger saga. It reminds the reader of the fraternal estrangement and sets the stage for the next step of the story and beyond. Clothing will remain important in the later stages of the Joseph cycle when his garment plays a role in his second imprisonment, and then later still, when he gives his brothers changes of clothing. It is also reminiscent of the role played by clothing in the prior generation, when Jacob deceives and is deceived in return, by clothing. Perhaps the pun is intended—הבגד בוגד, the garment betrays the person who wears it (see Proverbs 25:19-20 for such a pun). 

The tunic certainly plays an important role in this scene. It suddenly shifts from being a marker of love and favor to one of hatred, danger and death. Ibn Ezra states that the tunic is an undergarment, and thus the brothers strip Joseph not only of a “coat,” but of all his clothing, throwing him naked into the pit (medieval midrashim have him left with only an amulet that is then transformed by the angel Raphael or perhaps Gabriel into a garment to protect him below). Some sources say that in their haste to remove the garment, the brothers literally tear it from him. When Jacob says later that “a wild beast has torn Joseph,” he is speaking the truth. Contorted by hatred, the brothers become beasts, just like Cain’s sin, crouching at the door, ready to pounce. 

This tunic then is a sign of unwise love and excessive jealousy; this garment exerts malign power on those who see it. However, it also has an effect on Joseph. So long as he wears this cloak, he is conceited and clueless about the feelings of others. Without the garment, he becomes humbled and keenly attuned to the feelings of people around him. He becomes a more spiritual person, learning from his difficult experience, and emerging from darkness into light. 

An allegorical reading is offered by the Hasidic writer Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev in which the tunic represents materialism, גשמיות, and its removal allows Joseph to become spiritually purified and thus powerful. Rabbi Levi notices that the Aramaic translation of our verse renders the Hebrew word for “stripped” וַיַּפְשִׁיטו, as ואשלחו, “they cast it out.” He connects this meaning to the story of the spies in Numbers who are “sent out” שלח לך, and, in his telling, caused to strip themselves of materialism so that they can purify the land as they pass through. When righteous people arrive at a place of impurity and worship God there, all of the “wicked sparks” grow ashamed and flee. So it was with Joseph—he was purified by the removal of his tunic.

Joseph is transformed from a person who is self-absorbed and impervious to the feelings of others. His tunic is like a shield and a shell. Only when it is removed can he see others and himself clearly. Only then can he become a successful person and a redemptive figure. But let’s notice the spiritual growth of the brothers as well. After initially giving in to the darkness, they show the capacity for remorse and change. Judah in particular is able to see his own error, first with Tamar, and then with Joseph. Sin did more than crouch by his door—it conquered him, but not forever. Judah—the one who confesses—becomes the paragon of painful growth.

It is a dark time of year and a time of many dark actions. We are right to be concerned, and ought to take action to make our society safer, with less access to assault weapons, and more careful observation of people who show the tendency toward evil. As we prepare to light the Menorah this Sunday evening, let’s think of the lights not only as candles but as actions. Each wick that sparks to life is a symbol of the moment when darkness turns to light, fear turns to hope, and anger turns to joy. These are the great miracles of our lives, and they deserve to be publicized and celebrated.

בראשית פרק לז פסוק כג

וַיְהִי כַּאֲשֶׁר בָּא יוֹסֵף אֶל אֶחָיו וַיַּפְשִׁיטוּ אֶת יוֹסֵף אֶת כֻּתָּנְתּוֹ אֶת כְּתֹנֶת הַפַּסִּים אֲשֶׁר עָלָיו:


תרגום אונקלוס בראשית פרק לז פסוק כג

(כג) והוה כד אתא יוסף לות אחוהי ואשלחו ית יוסף ית כתוניה ית כתונא דפסי דעלוהי:


רש”י בראשית פרשת וישב פרק לז פסוק כג

את כתונת הפסים – הוא שהוסיף לו אביו יותר על אחיו:


רשב”ם בראשית פרשת וישב פרק לז פסוק כג

(כג) את כתונת הפסים – [יש מפרשים] לא הזכירה אלא לרמוז לך שהיא גרמה תחילה השנאה. וזה אינו. אלא לפי שהוא אומר לפנינו וישלחו את כתונת הפסים להטעותו שיחשוב בלבו כי חיה רעה אכלתהו כמו שאמ’ ויכירה ויאמר כתונת בני, לכך הוא מזכירה כאן:


אבן עזרא בראשית פרשת וישב פרק לז פסוק כג

(כג) ויפשיטו פועל יוצא לשני פועלים, שאמרו לו שיפשיט אותה בעצמה. והכתונת בלשון הקדש החלק הדבוק לעור, והנה הערימוהו והשליכוהו ערום אל הבור:


חזקוני בראשית פרשת וישב פרק לז פסוק כג

כג) את כתנת הפסים לפי שהיא גרמה תחלה השנאה.


קדושת לוי במדבר פרשת שלח ד”ה שלח לך

שלח לך אנשים (יג, ב). הכלל, כשאדם מישראל בא אל מקום אחד ועובד ה’ שם, אז כל הניצוצות אשר שם הם מתביישים ממנו, כ הוא מגלה שורש ועיקר הבריאה, כמאמר חכמינו ז”ל לא ברא הקדוש ברוך הוא כו’, ואז בקל יכול לכבוש אותם, וזה היה כוונת שלוח מרגלים. אבל האדם צריך לפשוט עצמו מגשמיות בכדי שיתביישו מלפניו כל הניצוצות, ואז כובש אותם. וזהו הרמז ‘שלח’, לשון הפשטה, מלשון וישלחו, ‘ויפשיטו’ (בראשית לז, כג) תרגם אונקלוס ‘ואשלחו’: