This week’s sermon on parshat Vayeshev.
Last week, our student choir sang a song about Rabbi Ben Bag Bag, who, in addition to having a “double name-name” is known for saying about the Torah, “Turn it, and turn it, and turn it again, for everything is in it” (Pirke Avot 5:22). Every time we read the Torah, we learn something new. And that’s an experience I had this week.
I was taking a class on the weekly Torah portion, Vayeshev, with the Jewish Studio Project. We were looking at the beginning of the Joseph story, which I would have previously said I was quite familiar with. My own bat mitzvah portion, as well as my older brother’s, was the end of the Joseph story. And as a bona fide musical theater geek, I knew the entire soundtrack of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat by heart.
So imagine my surprise when I discovered that I’d been mistranslating one of the verses.
Before I tell you what it was, let me see if anyone here knows the story better than I did. How did Joseph acquire his amazing technicolor dream-coat?…
In the Andrew Lloyd Weber version, we hear:
“Jacob wanted to show the world he loved his son
To make it clear that Joseph was the special one
So Jacob bought his son a coat
A multi-colored coat to wear.”
But in the Torah, it says:
ג) וְיִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל אָהַ֤ב אֶת־יוֹסֵף֙ מִל־בָּנָ֔יו כִּֽי־בֶן־זְקֻנִ֥ים ה֖וּא ל֑וֹ וְעָ֥שָׂה ל֖וֹ כְּתֹ֥נֶת פַּסִּֽים׃
(3) Now Israel loved Joseph best of all his sons, for he was the child of his old age; and he had made him an ornamented tunic (kutonet passim).
That’s right. All these years, I thought that Joseph’s coat, with all its fancy dyes and intricate embroidery, was an extravagant, perhaps impulsive purchase by a doting father. But aseh (like Oseh Shalom) literally means, “to make.”
How is this story different if Jacob made Joseph’s coat, rather than bought it?
What we found at the Jewish Studio Project was that the idea that the coat was made by Jacob opened up a treasure trove of new questions and possibilities.
How did Jacob make this coat? Was he trained in working with textiles? Did he learn these skills from his mother or one of his many wives? Was it easy for him or was it difficult? Did he use new materials, or was the coat a patchwork of meaningful scraps, carefully curated? One participant suggested that perhaps Jacob fashioned the coat from garments that had belonged to Joseph’s mother, Rachel.
When did Jacob make this coat? Did it take a long time? Was it something he started working on the moment his beloved Rachel finally conceived after many years of infertility—a project of hope and expectation? Or was it something he undertook after Rachel died giving birth to Benjamin—something to fill the endless empty hours while he was grieving his wife?
And why did Jacob make this coat? Clearly, it was a blatant display of favoritism for the “child of his old age.” But was it also an act of comfort for a boy who was clearly different from his brothers, a boy who’d lost his mother at a young age? No matter how we interpret the story, the word aseh emphasizes that the creation of this coat was just as much an act of love as the giving of it.
As we enter a season of gratitude and gift-giving, I’m thinking of all the ways we show love for one another. The physical gifts we give, but also the loving actions that we take. I want you to take a moment to think about something someone gave to you, made for you, or did for you, that could only have come from that person, and that that person might only have done for you. What did it mean to you? And how did you thank them?
This morning I saw a beautiful post on Twitter from someone who can only be identified as @DevinCow. The words reminded me a lot of my dad’s efficient handling of the dishes at every holiday, and of my mom, who this morning cleaned my kitchen and mended my favorite pajama pants while I wrote this sermon. These are just some of the many small, quiet things we do to make life just a little bit easier for the people we love, as @DevinCow writes:
“I miss my dad. I would have really strong coffee on. I’d be sautéing shallots and celery in butter, pulling the trays of bread cubes I’d been drying from the oven, gathering more and more of my stock, lots of sage, making the stuffing. And he’d be pulling the turkey ickies out, washing the bird well, using a stick of butter all over inside and out, then salt and pepper, helping me stuff it, tying it from the big cooking string container I still have, helping me get it on the rack and in the oven. He’d pour the last of the coffee, remind me “20 minutes to the pound”, go home to nap. Nobody else woke up in my silent house, I put the first load in the dishwasher, set the long table with flowers, candles, grandma’s china, and all that silver I’d polished yesterday. I want to do that again, and I can’t, ever. Nobody will ever love me like that, do that dumb thing for me, want to get up at 5 just to hang out and grab turkey insides that I’m perfectly capable, although can’t stand, touching. The quiet kitchen, prepared, whispering, laughing. Reminding me “20 minutes to the pound.” It’s quiet. And then in the quiet, making a beautiful table for a dozen or so people I love, knowing we will laugh, and tell old stories, little cousins and siblings will stay up too late, like we did, then be thrown into the bathtub in unexpected groupings, jammied, put to bed in big beds. where we ignore their whispers and laughter because now the good booze comes out, the funny stories from Ireland and Germany, even while I go through the Black Friday sale adds deciding what I’ll buy, only to sleep though the whole thing. I can’t do it again, my dad is gone, I’m grown up, but I can do a similar version again, someday, having someone pull the ickies out, remind “20 minutes a pound”. And then someday our grown kids, with their loves, and tiny grandchildren, will remind us of today’s stories, when we were so worried, afraid, disbelieving. If only we’d known we’d wind up here, in this future, in these moments, in this joy, with this laughter, where we eventually whisper “20 minutes to the pound” to them, secure in the knowledge they’ll do the same someday, to those tiny loves, even if we aren’t around to hear it.”
As we move through this season of gratitude and gift-giving, may the gifts we give, and the gifts we receive, be recognized and treasured for what they truly are: not only displays of affection, but also acts of love.
Rabbi Leah R. Berkowitz