In this week's Torah portion, Miketz, we read:
And removing his signet ring from his hand, Pharoah put it on Joseph’s hand; and he had him dressed in robes of fine linen… (Genesis 41:42)
Throughout the Joseph story, references to Joseph’s special clothing abound: in last week’s portion we learned that his father Jacob dressed him in a beautiful multicolored coat (37:3). Similarly, when Pharoah first releases Joseph from prison, we read that Joseph “had his hair cut and changed his clothes” (41:14). Later, when Pharoah promotes Joseph to a place of prominence in his court, he dresses him in “robes of fine linen.”
Conversly, if the “dressing of Joseph” is symbolic of his good fortune, the stripping of his clothes parallels his travails. Last week we read that Joseph was stripped of his colored coat by his brothers before they throw him into the pit (37:23). In Egypt, after Potiphar’s wife makes sexual advances upon him, she grabs his garment and uses it as evidence to falsely accuse him of assault – for which he is subsequently thrown into prison (39:12).
What are we to make of these multiple fashion statements? On one level, it is notable that Joseph is repeatedly “dressed and undressed” by others. In this sense, clothing might not represent his own personal sense of self, but rather a projection of external agendas and expectations – “artificial disguises” imposed upon him by family and society.
It is not until this week’s portion that Joseph understands how to use these disguises to his own benefit. When his brothers see him in Egypt after many years, we read, “they did not recognize him” (42:8), presumably because of his Egyptian style of dress. Subsequently, Joseph uses his new identity to put his brothers to the test, to see if they have truly learned from their past misdeeds against him.
In next week’s portion, Joseph will throw off his disguise and reveal himself to his brothers. In so doing, he demonstrates his readiness to stand free of artifice and externally imposed identities. By “making himself known” (45:1), Joseph understands that the various robes he has worn up until until now are mere costumes – and that his true identity is as a conduit for a much larger purpose in the world. As he will say to his brothers in next week’s portion, “It was not you who sent me here, but God…” (45:8)
On one level, perhaps, Joseph represents our own penchant for disguise; our willingness to let ourselves be dressed up in the symbolic “robes” that are placed upon us on the outside world. Taking our cue from this week’s portion, we might ask ourselves: How are these identities forced upon us? What are the ways we exploit these disguises for our own benefit? How do they keep us from realizing our innermost selves? How might we find the means to strip them off to discover the truer purpose that lies beneath?
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Hanukkah,
Rabbi Brant Rosen