Snakeskin sloughed off, sewn into shirts,
Salted with the spray of the spreading seas.
Soaked with the stale sweat of a searching son
I am the signature stamp of stealth,
The source of stained secrecy.
The strained suit of a stalker
Spread across soul-clutching fists,
A sibling’s stark sorrow.
What am I?
* * *
You got it already? I knew you would. It’s the fine-spun tunic endowed to Joseph by his father Jacob as the tangible manifestation of fatherly favoritism.
וְיִשְׂרָאֵל אָהַב אֶת-יוֹסֵף מִכָּל-בָּנָיו כִּי-בֶן-זְקֻנִים הוּא לוֹ וְעָשָׂה לוֹ כְּתֹנֶת פַּסִּים: וַיִּרְאוּ אֶחָיו כִּי-אֹתוֹ אָהַב אֲבִיהֶם מִכָּל-אֶחָיו-וַיִּשְׂנְאוּ אֹתוֹ וְלֹא יָכְלוּ דַּבְּרוֹ לְשָׁלֹם:
Israel loved Joseph more than his brothers because he was the son of his old age, and he made him a fine-spun tunic. His brothers saw him, that their father loved him over his brothers, and they hated him and were not able to talk with him peaceably. (Gen. 37.3-4)
Do you hate me or what I represent?
It is this ketonet passim, the cloak of many colors, which pushes Joseph’s seething siblings to “go gangsta” and put their hatred of him into action (More often transliterated as ketonet pasim — though the dagesh in the samech legitimates writing two s’s — a good translinguistic pun tickles me. Passim is Latin for “to be found in various places.”). What is it about the cloak’s signaling of this despised and envied favoritism that pulls the carpet out from underneath Joseph? This animosity and its ripple effects are not etiologically necessary for the Jewish people, for Joseph, the people’s mortal sustainer during famine, could feasibly have risen to power in Egypt another way. So what is it about the cloak that makes it so important?
From the Garden of Eden to Noah to Nimrod to Esau or from the Garden of Eden to Noah, to Shem, to Abraham, to Isaac, to Esau, the ketonet passim is a story of centuries-long strife stitched into one garment. Its very path to Joseph is as twisted and variegated as the commentators’ interpretations.
By the time Joseph receives it from his father, the cloak is stained and sullied by its odyssey. What is it about the cloak that makes it the trigger-point for Joseph’s first turn of fate — and what happens to this cloak afterwards? How does Jacob use it to mimic the Garden of Eden and what do we gain from that?
First, we have to retrace the origins of this cloak. See, Jacob, by giving Joseph the cloak, is doing a “Garden of Eden retake” and giving his children the opportunity to play the scene differently. Where the snake of the garden put on airs and spoke seductively to Eve to eat from the Tree of Good and Bad (Genesis 3), which was not hers to take from, Jacobs speaks to his father and takes a blessing that is not meant for him. Where the snake is cursed to “bite the heel” of the human (Gen. 3.15: וְאַתָּה תְּשׁוּפֶנּוּ עָקֵב), Jacob emerges from the womb “grasping the heel” of Esau (Gen. 25:26).
Moreover, where Adam and Eve recognize their vulnerability after having listened to the snake and need to be clothed, the cloaks that God provides (Gen. 3.21, וַיַּעַשׂ ה’ אֱלֹ-הִים לְאָדָם וּלְאִשְׁתּוֹ כָּתְנוֹת עוֹר וַיַּלְבִּשֵׁם, The Lord God made tunics of skin for man and his wife and he clothed them.) are, claims the ninth century Italian Pirkei D’Rabi Eliezer (20), tailored from the skin of the snake who was party to their disobedience.
I believe that by clothing his son with the snakeskin cloak from the Garden of Eden, Jacob is trying to escape some of his own fate at having been born “grasping the heel,” and sharing some snakish characteristics. I suggest that Joseph’s experience with the ketonet passim and our subsequent appropriation of it as “kohanic, or priestly, garments” comes back to Jacob’s relationship with it.
Good or Bad?
According to Pirkei D’Rabi Eliezer, Noah had the two coats from the Garden of Eden in the ark he built; Ham, his son, took them out of Noah’s ark and gave them to Nimrod, Ham’s grandson. For, so we are told, Nimrod was a mighty hunter and commandeered the natural world to his whim whenever he was wearing this edenic coat, gaining kudos among men and being appointed king. Esau, perhaps craving this approval for himself, murdered Nimrod and purloined the cloaks (At this point in the midrash, the two cloaks become one or indeed maybe one cloak is waiting by the stage for its own drama still to unfold. At least we are told that Yaakov, by stealth, receives these cloaks and it is one cloak which is passed on to Yosef).
So where does Joseph come into this?
For Rabbi Yehuda in Pirkei D’Rabi Eliezer, as he relates the origin myth of this cloak, the cloak is seemingly a cursed garment, bringing privilege but also danger. From man’s first nakedness, and God’s fatherly kindness in clothing us, to Jacob’s closeting the fabric for himself, the ketonet arrives at Joseph with a “striped” past (Passim, says the biblical commentator Avraham Ibn Ezra, refers to stripes).
Perhaps it is the stains of this brother on brother deceit of Jacob taking it from Esau that dazzle Joseph’s brothers when they see him coming to check up on them (Gen. 37.18), “They saw him from afar and while he was still approaching them they conspired to have him die.” Was it Joseph’s signature suit that they saw from a distance and which soured his brothers’ hearts so viciously?
Suspect sewing or celebrated stitches?
However, the Midrash Tanchuma takes the ketonet more positively, seeing it as the flagship model of the priesthood’s wardrobe (Buber 6:12). It presents the ketonet as a garment bestowed to us because we merit it. From Adam to Noah, this is no penitential habit but a gown of honor to be on the mantle of Shem, Abraham and Isaac before it arrives at Esau — and then, of course, is whisked off by Jacob, for Joseph’s wearing almost 50-odd years later.
Clothes as a tool, clothes as a portal
In both versions of the midrash above, it is this ketonet that Jacob wears in order to enable him to receive his blessing from Isaac. It is this ketonet, with its edenic fragrance, that allows Jacob, the tent-dweller, to pass as Esau, field-roamer.
Jacob mimetically attempts to pursue the creative selection of the Garden of Eden by making a special species out of his own son — in selecting only him to whom to give the cloak. Esau tries to turn his own world into a form of incorporated Eden cum Beit HaMikdash, or Temple — taking Bosmat and Yehudit (Miss Fragrance and Miss Jew) as wives. Jacob, on the other hand, uses Joseph via this ketonet passim, as the tool for future modelling of the Garden of Eden within the holiest of holies, the Temple.
Ketonet as redemptive
T. Bavli Zevachim 88b testifies that the priest’s ketonet worn in the Temple is intended as a tangible atonement for the bloodshed caused by Joseph’s brothers. Just as the brothers incidentally shed the blood of a goat on Joseph’s cloak to show it to Jacob as primary proof of his son’s demise, so too should the priest primarily shed the blood of a goat to atone for the sins of the people.
In wearing the ketonet, the priest redeems its past with Joseph, just as Joseph redeemed its past with Adam (see Ex. 28.3 for the list of the kohen’s vestments). I like to think that everyone can undergo the same transformation that Joseph does, from abandoned brother to global ruler, and that the clothes we wear, the cloakings we drape over ourselves, can be cleansed of the stains we wittingly or unwittingly caused.
What strikes me about the ketonet passim of Joseph is that his brothers judge him for what they see and also, perhaps, for what they don’t see — the generations of mistrust that nestle in this garment. And yet, somehow, the ketonet is purified to become exalted attire for closeness between God and man, rectifying the Garden of Eden; and man and man, rectifying Joseph and his brothers.