To paraphrase Mark Twain, "clothes make the [story]." Throughout the course of Parashat Vayeishev, references to clothing accentuate and propel the unfolding drama.
Joseph's Clothes Spell Trouble
As the parashah opens, the tension between Joseph and his brothers reaches its boiling point. They conspire to kill him out of jealousy, for he is their father's favorite son, but Reuben convinces them not to go that far. "So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped Joseph of his coat, the coat of many colors that he had on; then they took him and threw him into a pit . . ." (Genesis 37:23-24). It is darkly poetic that the brothers' first act of violence against Joseph attacks his clothing, the special coat given him by Jacob as a sign of paternal favoritism. With Joseph out of the picture, the coat becomes the brothers' vehicle for revenge against Jacob, too. They stain it with goat's blood and show it to Jacob as false evidence that Joseph has been killed. "Do you recognize it?" (Genesis 37:32) they ask Jacob, rhetorically and cruelly. The sight of the special coat, now torn and bloodied, breaks Jacob's heart.
What Goes Around . . .
After Joseph's capture and sale into Egyptian slavery, an episode about Judah and Tamar interrupts the narrative. Judah has three sons with his Canaanite wife, Shua: Er, Onan, and Shelah. Tamar marries Er, who dies; Judah sends his next son Onan to perform his brotherly duty by marrying Tamar in order that he might sire an heir for Er.1 Onan famously refuses and dies. Judah, fearing the death of his third and final son, dodges the responsibility of having Shelah marry Tamar by sending her to her father's house to wait "until my son Shelah grows up" (Genesis 38:11). Tamar waits, and even after Shelah reaches marriageable age, Judah balks.
So Tamar takes her fate in her own hands, and here's where the action and the clothing get interesting. Having heard that Judah was traveling nearby, Tamar "discarded her widow's garb, covered herself up with a veil, wrapped herself up, and stationed herself" (Genesis 38:14) as a prostitute where Judah would run into her. Judah approaches and propositions her, and Tamar demands a pledge from him to guarantee payment for their transaction: "Your signet seal, your cord, and the staff in your hand" (Genesis 38:18). The medieval commentators disagree on what these items are, exactly. Rashi says that the second item is not a "cord," but the garment with which Judah covered himself (see Rashi on Genesis 38:18). But Ramban disagrees: "It's not plausible that he would give [her] his clothes and walk away from her naked!" (Ramban on Genesis 38:18). And so we come full circle back to where we started with Mark Twain: "Clothes make the man. Naked people have little to no influence on society."
Clothed or not, Judah ends up playing the fool. After their encounter, Tamar immediately changes out of her veil and puts her widow's garb back on. Judah can't find the "prostitute" to pay her or get back his items in pledge. He decides to let her keep them, "lest we become a laughingstock!" (Genesis 38:23). Three months later, Judah finds out that Tamar is pregnant illegitimately, so he prepares to punish her. But this plays right into her hand, and she says to Judah: "The man to whom these belong made me pregnant. Acknowledge whose signet seal, cords, and staff these are!" (Genesis 38:25).
The tables have turned on Judah. A chapter earlier, the sons of Jacob (including Judah) presented Joseph's bloodied coat to their father with the words haker na, "do you recognize [this]?" (Genesis 37:32). Now Tamar uses clothing and the very same words against Judah to expose his hypocrisy: haker na, "do you recognize [these]?" (Genesis 38:25). Radak, another medieval commentator, sums it up beautifully. Citing B'reishit Rabbah (85:11), he says: "The Torah toys with humanity: It said to Judah, 'You said to your father, 'haker na.' By your life, Tamar says to you, 'haker na' " (Radak on Genesis 38:25). In other words, what goes around, comes around. And as Shakespeare put it: "Shall we their fond pageant see? / Lord, what fools these mortals be!" (A Midsummer-Night's Dream, act 3, scene 2).
Joseph's Clothes Spell Trouble, Redux
After the Judah and Tamar interlude, the Torah returns to Joseph's fate. Potiphar, a prominent Egyptian, buys Joseph from the Ishmaelite traders and appoints him as head slave of the household. Things are going well until Potiphar's wife takes a liking to her handsome servant Joseph. He rejects her advances, repeatedly. But one day, when Joseph and Potiphar's wife are alone in the house, she "took hold of him by his garment, saying, 'Lie with me!' He left his garment in her hand, fled, and ran outside" (Genesis 39:12). The clothing underscores the action: Potiphar's wife is the aggressor, grabbing Joseph's garment and holding onto it after he flees from her clutches.
When Potiphar's wife explains to her servants and then to her husband why she has Joseph's clothing, she lies. Instead of saying what the Torah just told us—that she grabbed his clothing b'yadah, "in her hand"—she substitutes the word etzli, "near me": "when I raised my voice and cried out, he left his garment near me and fled" (Genesis 39:18; see also 39:15). With that verbal sleight of hand, Potiphar's wife flips the story from a tale of her aggression against Joseph to an accusation of assault by Joseph. The Torah uses the device of Joseph's clothing to propel the drama, just as it did in the episode of his brothers' betrayal at the beginning of the parashah.
A Change of Fate (and Clothing)
Looking ahead to the next parashah (Mikeitz), we witness Joseph's ascent to power in Egypt. The incident with Potiphar's wife got him thrown in the dungeon, and his ability to interpret dreams became his ticket out. When Pharaoh learns that Joseph might be able to interpret his troubling dreams, he "sent to summon Joseph; they hurried him from the pit: he shaved, changed his clothing, and came to Pharaoh" (Genesis 41:14). This moment creates a literary bookend to Joseph's abuse by his brothers. Whereas they stripped him of his good clothing and threw him into a pit, Pharaoh now restores Joseph's clothing and removes him from a pit. The reversal of fortune and clothing sets Joseph up to fulfill his youthful dream of ruling over his brothers and father while they bow down to him (see Genesis 37:5-11).
Pharaoh completes Joseph's makeover after appointing him as overseer of Egypt's famine preparations. "Pharaoh removed his signet ring from his hand and put it on Joseph's hand; he dressed him in linen trappings and placed the gold chain [of office] around his neck" (Genesis 41:42). Joseph's royal garb includes items that Tamar used to expose Judah, linking that interlude with the main narrative through clothing.
Throughout these episodes, articles of clothing highlight and drive the unfolding drama. A sophisticated and artful literary hand was at work in these stories, dramatizing the themes of betrayal, hypocrisy, reversal of fortune, and poetic justice that make Genesis such a compelling text.
1. See the levirate marriage law in Deuteronomy 25:5-10; see also "Chalitzah," essay in W. G. Plaut, gen. ed., The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Rev. Ed. (New York: URJ Press, 2005), p. 1,341
Rabbi David Segal is the spiritual leader of the Aspen Jewish Congregation in Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley of Colorado. He was ordained at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York and is an alumnus of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship.