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Torah Commentary
Vayeishev (December 13, 2014)

Benjamin J. Zeidman, Assistant Rabbi

WITH CHANUKAH BEGINNING SOON and Thanksgiving behind us, we anticipate joining in the traditional American custom of gift-giving. It can be a lovely practice, but what happens when the receiver of gifts gets spoiled like Joseph in our parashah this week? At the age of 17, he was given a k’tonet paseem, an ornamented tunic, that “coat of many colors.” Assyrian inscriptions and Egyptian paintings show men and women of the Ancient Near East wearing these kinds of garments to show high status and wealth.

What was Joseph doing wearing it? And why on earth did Jacob give it to him in the first place? It’s no surprise Joseph dreams those dreams that suggest his family will bow down to him. He’s been told by word and deed that he is “more special” than his brothers. You’d think he would have the sense to be modest, to keep these dreams to himself. Instead he wears his superiority on his sleeve — literally.

That is, until we read the words: “Joseph was taken down to Egypt.” (Genesis 39:1) V’yosef hoo-rad, he has been taken down. Joseph, the spoiled and self-righteous young adult is taken down a notch; he is “brought low” and made aware of his littleness in this world. His coat is taken from him and torn. He is sold into slavery. He is forced to realize that everything he assumed about himself was wrong.

The American holiday season is upon us, and the Festival of Lights lies just around the corner. As each evening arrives, we will add another candle into our Chanukah menorah so that our eighth night is the brightest. In the Talmud, (B. Shabbat 21b) Rabbi Yose ben Zabida points out that we do this so that we may increase in holiness. To begin too high requires that we be brought down. Instead, we begin carefully. We focus on the qualities of improving and increasing the sanctity of the festival.

As we consider the gifts we may be giving to loved ones, we must remember the point of a gift: to show love, respect and care. To give gifts focused on meaning instead of extravagance.

A wonderful way to engage in this holy endeavor is to give gifts to those who need them, even if you have never met them. Acts of loving-kindness, while needed year-round are especially necessary during this coldest, darkest and most dreary part of the year. Loved ones gather and celebrate in warmth and comfort, while those who need it most remain alone and cold. The Rabbis teach in Avot 6:9 that “at the time of a person’s departure from the world, nothing but Torah and good deeds accompany them.” Not objects but the goodness we bring to the world, that is how we are measured.

At the beginning of the parashah this week, Joseph is given a beautiful and expensive coat: the symbol of a wasted gift. It is overly expensive and meaningless to the receiver. By the end of next week’s parashah, Joseph has become successful as vizier in Egypt and is able to give the gifts of food and life to those who come to him in need. May we be more like the older Joseph and less like the younger one. And may our gifts this holiday season represent true love, compassion and righteousness.

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