Parashat Vayeishev

Friday, November 30, 2018 /22 Kislev, 5779
Parashat Vayeishev  Genesis 37:1-40:23

Dear Friends,

Commonly, we are familiar with the Jewish funereal custom of tearing our clothes at the grave.   The tradition finds its origin in this week’s Torah portion – repeatedly.

This week we read the beginning of the Joseph narrative, commencing with the coat of many colors vignette this week.  Joseph was the favorite son of our patriarch, Jacob, who elevated Joseph’s status above his other eleven sons, causing jealousy and enmity.  Thus, when Joseph was sent out to the countryside to see how his brothers were faring with the flocks, the brothers schemed against Joseph.  Initially, they sought to kill him, but eventually temporized and stripped him of his coat, cast him in a pit and then sold him to passing traders, who took him down to Egypt.  Returning to their father, they presented the soiled coat, and Jacob wailed for his son.

Yet, three times in the section we read of tearing.  When Reuben returned to the pit to rescue Joseph, he discovered that his siblings had dispatched with Joseph, and “He tore his clothes.” (Gen. 37:29)  Secondly, when the brothers showed Joseph’s tunic to Jacob, the father wailed, “He is torn to shreds!” (Gen. 37:33).  Finally, Jacob mourned Joseph, “Jacob tore his clothes.” (Gen. 37:34)

Yes, this is a ritual procedure which we observe at a funeral or a graveside, to symbolically demonstrate that we are torn when confronted with a death.  But more: we ARE torn.  And, our covering – our clothing – is torn.  We are exposed.  Our surface has been rendered, and our innards are bared.

Dramatic loss leaves us vulnerable from the outside to the inside.   We pretend to be okay – we tell others that we are “fine.”   Yet, the tearing of our garment as a ritual, called “k’riah” in Hebrew, is a physical reminder that our coverings are only veneers that provide a shallow, surface shelter.   Underneath, we are anything but fine.

For many, today, including myself at times, our rituals may seem anachronistic or archaic.  They seem to be relics of a simpler past which indulged superstitions.   Yet, upon closer look, such as at the custom of k’riah, we find that it may be teaching a deep and powerful truth, which otherwise may go unheeded.

We don’t want to do k’riah – or to be at a funeral or a grave.  Yet, when we are in those circumstances, our tradition offers us ritual to help express the inner – and outer – honesty of the occasion.

We empathize with Jacob this week.

Shabbat Shalom!
Rabbi Doug Kohn