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Parshas Vayeishev (5775)

Joseph's Coat of Many Colors: A Lesson in Envy

Most of you, I am sure, are familiar with the biblical story of Joseph and his brothers - either from your Hebrew School days or perhaps you once saw Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

The Torah in Genesis 37:3 relates that Jacob loved Joseph more than all his sons and he made him a kesones passim, a “coat of many colors”. (Others translate it as a “fine woolen tunic”.) This caused Joseph’s brothers to envy him and to hate him, and ultimately to sell him as a slave to some passing merchants who took him down to Egypt.

In his commentary to this verse, Rash”i cites a Midrash which teaches that the Hebrew word passim which is used to describe Joseph’s colorful tunic is actually an acronym, and it represents the troubles and tribulations that Joseph would have to endure. Passim is spelled pei, samech, yud, mem, and stands for those who were involved in selling him down to Egypt as a slave: Potiphar (a courtier of Pharaoh), Socharim (merchants), Yishmealim (Arabs), and Midianim (Midianites).

The Bible commentators derive a great lesson from this Midrash regarding envy and how to deal with it. They point out the incredible irony that the very same kesones passim which was the cause of the brother’s jealousy of Joseph also represented the very unenviable ordeal that Joseph had to go through as a pitiful slave being sold from one group to the next. Had the brothers only foreseen all the tzaros and suffering that Joseph would have to experience in his life at the hands of the four slave masters, they would not have been so quick to envy him in the first place.

A woman named Judy walks into a dinner party with a much older man. At dinner, the lady sitting next to the woman turns to her and says, "My, that's a beautiful diamond you're wearing. In fact, I think it's the most beautiful diamond I have ever seen!" "Thank you," replies Judy. "This is the Plotnick Diamond." "The Plotnick Diamond? Is there a story to it?" "Oh yes, the diamond comes with a curse." "A curse?" asks the lady. "What curse?"… "Mr. Plotnick." Sometimes the very object of our envy – be it an amazing coat of many colors or a magnificent diamond or even our best friend’s husband – might really be the biggest curse. So we had better be careful about what we are jealous of.

This “lesson in envy” is beautifully illustrated in the Tenth Commandment, where G-d commands the Jewish people not to covet that which belongs to our neighbor. The Torah then adds that we should not covet “everything that belongs to our neighbor” (see Exodus 20:14).

These “extra” words teach us a profound lesson, as they point to the fact that we tend to covet selectively, rather than perceiving the entire picture when it comes to the object of our desire. It is as though G-d says to us, “Really, you covet your friend’s job? You want to have what he has? You want to be him? Okay, fine with me. You’ll get the money he has. But you’ll also get everything else he has. You’ll have to put up with his tyrannical boss, his wife who makes his life miserable, and his kids who are spoiled rotten and who never talk to him unless they need money!”

As Shmuley Boteach writes in his amusing and irreverent book Dating Secrets of the Ten Commandments (Doubleday Publishers):

You may see a young couple kissing passionately in an airport and envy them – but think for a moment. Perhaps they are kissing because he is her lover, and she is trapped in a loveless marriage and they will never meet again, and he will die a sad old bachelor. Or maybe she has something stuck in her teeth and he is helping her get it out. Or perhaps they are starring in a really mushy long-distance phone call commercial and can’t stand each other. Or maybe they are both drug smugglers and she is passing sixteen kilos of cocaine into his mouth to bring into the country. These are all very real and likely scenarios.

The Talmud in Berachos 32b teaches that even when the Gates of Prayer in heaven are closed, the Gates of Tears are never closed. The Kotzker Rebbe ZT”L asks why do the “Gates of Tears” need gates if they are never closed? He answers that the gates are there to block the tears of those who are crying for things that are not good for them.

How often do we envy that which belongs to others and we pray and cry to G-d to give us things that we think are good for us and what we really need, but which are in actuality quite harmful for us.

Let’s place our trust in our Father in Heaven Who knows exactly what each and every one of us truly needs – instead of envying and crying for what might just be the biggest curse in our lives.

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