Vayeshev: The Rainbow Cloak

“And Israel loved Joseph more than all his children, for he was a son of his old age; and he made him an embroidered cloak.” (Bereishit 37:3)

Jacob clothes his son in splendor,
wraps him in a rainbow cloak,
Jacob’s tears drip down like dewfall
on the bright-hued pristine cloth.

Joseph draws his hood about him
cocoons himself inside his cloak,
walking tall among his brothers
regales them with his dreams of fame.

Striding fast in cloak enfolded,
Joseph comes to seek his brothers:
the glory of his garb betrays him,
they spot the colors from afar.

“What a picture!” mocks one brother
“Daddy’s darling!” spits another.
“Why not kill the loathsome dreamer?
We’ll never hear his tales again!”

Joseph walks into the ambush
his brothers grab him from behind,
roughly rip his mantle off him:
he sees the fury in their eyes.

They cast him down into the pit
ignore his cries, sit down to eat.
They kill a goat and stain his cloak
and bring it back to show their father.

They look their father in the eye.
“Looks like Joseph won’t come back.”
Jacob’s tears then spill like rainfall
on the bright-hued blood-stained cloth.


The story of Joseph’s colored coat is one of the best known of Bible stories and of course a rich source for commentary.
Chazal said, “See the consequences of favoring one child over another. Because of these few ounces of wool, our people were enslaved in Egypt.” (BT Shab 10b).
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch says of the above verse that Israel (not Jacob) saw in Joseph the most excellent of his sons and was aware of his spiritual potential. So he singled him out by giving him a distinctive garment intended to mark the importance of the personality of the wearer. “That all this was not judicious or wise…that altogether to show favoritism to one child had only evil effects in the history of our forefathers as indeed it has in any home, is stressed bitterly enough in the pernicious results which are shown in this story.”
In her book, Wrestling with Angels, Naomi Rosenblatt comments, “Like many bereaved spouses, Jacob will transfer his emotional attachment to the most tangible link to this dead wife – her child. As a victim of his own father’s own favoritism, Jacob would be expected to be more sensitive to his sons’ feelings. He better than anyone should understand the destructiveness of loving his sons unequally…”
The Etz Hayim commentary of the JPS points out the difficulty children experience in avoiding repetition of the mistakes their parents make, even though they are well aware of the problem at an intellectual level.
Elie Wiesel also criticizes Jacob’s poor parenting, “Surely Jacob was the real culprit: he must have been a bad father, a poor teacher. What an idea to favor one child, give him more gifts, more attention, more love…Did he not know that such behavior would eventually harm the boy he wanted to protect?”
The jealousy and frustration the brothers had kept pent up (the subsequent verse describes how the brothers hated Joseph so much that they could not say a friendly word to him) led to a horrifying level of increasing callousness, cruelty and intent to murder. No mention is made of Jacob trying to bring peace between his sons, even though Jacob berates Joseph for the dream in which the sun, moon and stars bow down to him. The text says merely that the brothers were jealous and Jacob bore the matter (of the dream) in mind. But it is assumed that the extent of brothers’ hostility was not apparent or Jacob would not have sent Joseph to them.

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