By Rabbi Andrea Myers
Years ago, I took a road trip to Cincinnati to do research at the archives of Hebrew Union College. It was my first time away from home since our daughter Ariella had been born four years before.
In preparation for my departure, my partner Lisa asked me whether I needed anything sent to the dry cleaners, and I asked her to send my pea coat so I would be warm in the cold Cincinnati spring. She was kind enough to do so, but busy enough that she did not check the pockets. We realized, too late, that my wallet was inside. We called the dry cleaners, who told us it was nowhere to be found. We were rabbinic enough to want to give the benefit of the doubt, and New Yorkers enough that we were skeptical. We went that night to the premises, and found the remains of my wallet in the garbage outside the cleaners. My business cards, receipts, and photographs were all there, along with my membership card from the New York Board of Rabbis. My credit cards, driver’s license, and money, were not. I had been cleaned out by the cleaners.
At least they returned my coat. Joseph, in this week’s parashah, Vayeshev, isn’t so lucky: “When Joseph came up to his brothers, they stripped Joseph of his coat, the many-colored coatÂ that he was wearing,Â and took him and cast him into the pit” (Genesis 37:23-24).
Joseph’s famous coat was more than a covering. The Torah tells us that a person’s coat provided a person’s personal history. It was symbol of status, and in some cases, it told a story. The word ketonet, used to describe Joseph’s coat, seems to carry special weight. When Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden, God gave them kotnot or, coats of skin, to cover their nakedness (Gen. 3:21). Aaron’s sons, the priests, have kutanot as part of their official garb. The actual phrase ketonet passim, coat of many colors, is used one other time in the Tanakh. Tamar, King David’s daughter, is described as wearing one after her brother Amnon violates her. The heartbreak of her situation comes through in the poignant description of her clothes: “And she had a many-colored coat upon her; for with such robes were the king’s daughters who were virgins dressed. Then his servant took her out, and bolted the door after her. And Tamar put ashes on her head, and tore her many-colored coat that was on her, and laid her hand on her head, crying aloud as she went” (2 Sam. 13:18-19).
In each case, the coat seems connected to identity; it tells us who the wearer is, how they see themselves, and how they are seen by others. In that sense, the ketonet, coat, as described in the Tanakh is more similar to the wallet that I lost than the coat that I kept. Anyone who has ever lost a wallet, or had one stolen, knows the impact it can have on one’s sense of self – and the challenge of recreating one’s identity, piece by piece.
But what happens when we are stripped of our coats – of our identities? It is only in times of crisis that we discover our true identities. It is only in the dark times that we discover our true priorities.
This is one of the greatest miracles of Hanukkah. When Antiokhus decreed that the Jews could not pray and sacrifice in the Temple, or show other manifestations of Jewish belief and life, he stripped them of their identities. He may have thought that by removing these outward acts, he could negate their sense of self, and neutralize their threat. But the Jews, led by the Maccabees, fought back. They fought against the darkness and rekindled the light. They re-established who they were.
When I think about the loss of my wallet, I think about what the thieves left. They took what they thought was valuable: credit cards, money, conventional forms of ID. But by leaving everything from my family pictures to my membership card from the New York Board of Rabbis, they left me my true sense of self.
Later in Vayeshev, Joseph gets another piece of clothing: this time, one that denotes his authority as overseer in Potiphar’s house. When Potiphar’s wife tries to seduce him, she grabs hold of his garment, and he escapes, leaving the garment behind. It may be that by now, Joseph has learned the lesson that what is truly valuable stays with you. Ultimately, Joseph’s power was not in his coat, but in him. The coat was colorful and the coat was beautiful, but it is our actions that generate light.
Rabbi Andrea Myers is the author of The Choosing: A Rabbi’s Journey from Silent Nights to High Holy Days (Rutgers University Press, 2011).