‘Stripes of the Rainbow’ Parashat Vayeshev 5778

This shiur will be slightly different than our typical shiur in that it consists of two parts. Both parts are connected with Joseph’s coat and both are based upon ideas from my wife, Tova[1]. The shiur was written together.

The Torah tells us that Yaakov loved Joseph more than all of his sons and, presumably as a result of this love, [Bereishit 37:3] “[Yaakov] made him a ketonet passim”. While most of the commentators agree that the word “ketonet” means “coat” or “cloak”, the word “passim” is more enigmatic. The commentators offer an array of explanations: Rav David Kimchi suggests that the coat was colourful. Others, including the Ibn Ezra and the Ramban, propose that the coat was embroidered. The Rashbam, identifying the word “passim” with “pass yad”, meaning “palm of the hand”, believes that the coat had long sleeves, suggesting that the person who wore the coat was exempt from physical labour. In this shiur, we’re going to go with the standard explanation, the one we learnt in kindergarten from Mrs. Newhouse, the one made popular by the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat”, according to which Joseph is given a striped “coat of many colours”.

Part I

What did the world look like right after it was created? The Torah tells us [Bereishit 1:2] that the world was “tohu va’vohu”. The “Masoret HaRavChumash translates this term as “formless matter”. Rav J.B. Soloveichik calls it “primordial amorphous matter – the hyle”. The universe was formless, structureless, and shapeless. Rav Soloveichik explains that this hyle was created ex nihilo – “something from nothing” – and that every other subsequent act of creation was performed by transforming the hyle into something else: sky, planets, plant life, animals, and humans. Each act of creation caused a division in the hyle. Hashem separated between light and darkness. He separated between the heavens and the earth and between the water and the land. Imagine the primordial hyle as visible light containing all of the colours. Each act of creation served as a prism, splitting the light into individual wavelengths of colour.

When man sinned, Hashem destroyed the world with the great flood. Why did Hashem specifically bring a flood and not some other form of extermination? I suggest that the flood served to erase all of the divisions that had been created during those first seven days, returning all of creation back into one amorphous body of water. Continuing down this path, it becomes clear why Hashem chose to base His covenant with Noach, a covenant in which Hashem promised that He would never again flood[2] the world, specifically upon the rainbow. The rainbow demonstrates that all colours are actually one and that the divisions and borders are all part of one single reality. The rainbow symbolizes the act of creation, splitting the light into independent and well-defined components. Each time we see a rainbow[3] we are witnessing, in a very small sense, the recreation of the universe.

This idea can lend us some insight on Joseph’s coat of many colours. As a result of Yaakov’s overt preference for Joseph, Joseph’s brothers saw themselves as separate and unattached to each other. It was this feeling of separation that allowed them to believe that they could do away with Joseph. The remedy to their sin is their realization that despite their distinctiveness and their different roles, they all share one destiny. They must internalize that while they are each stripes of different colours, they are all part of one indivisible Am Yisrael. Only when they are bound together can they shine with light. Only when they are willing to sacrifice for each other, as Yehuda eventually lays down his own freedom for Binyamin, can Joseph re-join the rainbow.

Part II

Walking to the Old City of Jerusalem, we passed through Hutzot HaYotzer, the “Artisan’s Lane” across the street from the Jaffa Gate. Hutzot HaYotzer is the best place to find stunning Judaica at outrageous prices. It is more like a museum than a store. We noticed a painter at work in one of the shops and walked in to have a look-see. Our lives became permanently altered, not by the painter, but by another exhibition that was going on in the shop, “Parsha Posters” by Hillel Smith. Smith has created one poster for each parasha. The posters weave the Hebrew name of parasha into a motif from the parasha, often taken from the Midrash. Many of the posters incorporate optical illusions[4]. Each and every one of them contains a nugget of gold.

The poster for Parashat Vayeshev[5] is especially noteworthy. It incorporates the name of the parasha as stripes in Joseph’s coat of many colours. A close look shows two hands belonging to a person jailed behind the stripes, which have become the bars of a prison cell. This is obviously a nod to Joseph, who is thrown into prison after he is wrongly accused of sexual impropriety with his master’s wife. I thought it was a nice double entendre, but my wife took it another step.

After Joseph’s brothers bring Yaakov Joseph’s blood-soaked coat, Yaakov breaks down and cries [Bereishit 37:33]: “[It is] my son’s coat; a wild beast has devoured him; Joseph has surely been torn up.” Amnon Ribak offers a fascinating comment: It is “my son’s coat” that has become the “wild beast” that tore up Joseph. Yaakov’s cry is an admission of his guilt: he had shown overt favouritism towards Joseph by giving him the coat, causing his brother’s anger that eventually devoured him. Looking at Smith’s parasha poster, Joseph is jailed by his coat. Yaakov’s gift to his son metaphorically imprisons him, separating him from his brothers, and eventually leading to imprisonment behind bars in Egypt.

We take the next and final step with great trepidation. The Ramban calls the “Book of Bereishit” the “Book of Signs”. Everything that happens in the Book of Bereishit serves as a signpost for what will eventually happen to Am Yisrael in the future – “Ma’aseh avot siman l’vanim”. Of all the people in the world, Hashem chooses Avraham Avinu to father a nation that will infuse the world with Godliness. Indeed, Moshe tells Am Yisrael [Devarim 26:18] “Hashem has selected you to be His treasured people… so that you shall observe all His commandments”. As a chosen nation the Jewish people stand out: We eat different food, we keep different holidays, and we, like our ancestor Joseph, wear different clothing. And, like our ancestor Joseph, we pay a price. King David writes [Psalms 43:24] “For it is for Your sake that we are killed all the time, [that] we are considered as sheep for the slaughter”. Like Joseph, we were chosen but we did not choose. We were given our coat of many colours and we wear it proudly. We bask in its glory and we bear its consequences. And like our ancestor Joseph we will never remove our coat in order to gain favour in the eyes of others, no matter what the costs.

Perhaps we can connect the two parts of this shiur: Am Yisrael are chosen to be distinct but at the same time we are part of one unified world. The future redemption is described as a time when knowledge of Hashem “floods” the world like water. At that time all humanity will realize that we are all part of the same light. Our task is to teach the world that the way ahead lies via celebrating our differences and by working together for a common goal.


Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5778

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza and Tzvi ben Freida.

[1] In this shiur the word “I” means “she.”

[2] Common misconception: Hashem never promises that He will never destroy the world. All He says is that there will never be another flood, see Bereishit [9:15]

[3] The halachic permissibility of staring at a rainbow is debatable.

[4] Here is a link to his site: http://hillelsmith.storenvy.com/collections/1264488-parsha-posters

[5] Here is the link: http://hillelsmith.storenvy.com/collections/1264488-parsha-posters/products/15753876-vayeshev-parsha-poster

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty-five years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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