Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Parashat VaYeshev: 'Clothing' and Control

'Clothing' and Control
A Message for Parashat VaYeshev 2016
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The early narrative of Parashat VaYeshev is dominated by the symbolism of Yosef’s ornamented tunic (ketonet passim). Initially made for him as a sign of Yaakov’s preferential love (37:3), it was later used by his brothers as a tool of deception to their father. Upon selling Yosef as a slave, they dipped his tunic in the blood of a freshly slaughtered kid and misled Yaakov into believing that Yosef had died (37:33).

This was not Yaakov’s first encounter with clothing as a tool of deception in brotherly rivals. Ironically, the first time around it was he who deceivingly dressed in his brother’s clothing, in pursuit of his father’s blessing (27:15). Deception by means of clothing had come full-circle for Yaakov. Whereas he had previously used it to break familial hierarchy in his favor, his sons now used it against him to restore a fair structure in their own family.

The Torah’s history of clothing may add another dimension to this particular episode. Consider the initial description of Adam and Hava: “And the two of them were naked, the human and his woman, and they were not ashamed” (2:25). The seemingly mild weather of Gan Eden and their unashamed nature delayed their conception of clothing. The immediate consequence of eating from the Etz ha-Da’at, however, was the invention of clothing: “And the eyes of the two were opened, and they knew they were naked, and they sewed fig leaves and made themselves loincloths” (3:7). The creation of clothing, then, occupies an integral part of man’s initial sin. Why?

The late Jewish philosopher Michael Wyschogrod z”l highlighted the described consequence of eating from the tree, “You shall become as gods, knowing good and evil” (3:5), in his definition of the nature of sin. He explained that by eating from the tree, Adam and Hava exerted their autonomous judgment of good and evil. Their value judgments were no longer decided by God, and were instead based on their own criterion. The subsequent revelation of their nakedness was the extension of sin, as God had never commanded against going nude, and their shame in that instance was instead driven by their own self-perception.[1]

The invention of clothing was then the next step in their autonomous behavior. Born into a world created by God, man first endeavored self-creation by sewing the initial garment. The creation of clothing thus symbolized man’s willingness to create his own rules and control his own fate.

Immediately prior to banishing Adam and Hava from Gan Eden, God made them skin coats and clothed them (3:21). The symbolism of this gesture seems clear. It forced them to reconsider who was actually in control. Through a forced exit from the Garden and a set of God-given clothing, Adam and Hava were served the stark reminder of a mistaken belief in autonomy and self-control.[2]

Let us now reconsider the “clothing story” of our parashah.

The motive underlying Yaakov’s making clothing for Yosef mirrors that of Adam and Hava’s invention of clothing: control. Sewing a special tunic for Yosef, Yaakov sought control of the family hierarchy. By so doing, he attempted to shift the mantle of leadership from the oldest of his sons to the near-youngest. And God’s response to Adam and Hava through the parallel symbolism of clothing was similarly repeated to Yaakov. Staring at the blood-stained garment that was stripped from his beloved son, Yaakov was forced to reconsider the actual extent of his governance.

We spend much of our lives “making clothing.” We seek control of all realms and aspects of our lives, and attempt to manipulate the outcome of every encountered situation. It is at those rare yet critical moments when we lose all control, however, that we perceive our limits and follow the lead of Yaakov to “rip our clothing.”

In loving memory of yedidi ha-yakar, Avraham ben Levana Cohen, z”l.

[1] “Sin and Atonement in Judaism,” in The Human Condition in the Jewish and Christian Traditions (New York, 1986), pg. 103-26. Reprinted in Abraham’s Promise (Cambridge, 2004), pg. 53-74. Recall, as well, our brief analysis of this matter in the devar Torah for Parashat Bereshit, “Freedom.”
[2] In his Covenant & Conversation: Bemidbar (New Milford, CT, 2017), pg. 164, R. Jonathan Sacks similarly observed that clothing is generally associated with “deception” throughout Sefer Bereshit. He further noted, in this context, that the Hebrew word for garment – begged – appropriately also means “betrayal.”