The Light in the Mirror (Ideas #101)

In my last essay, I discussed the connection of Tamar to her clothing. If the theme of clothing had not been clear enough from the story of Tamar itself, it becomes even clearer from that story's blatant juxtaposition in the middle of the Yosef narrative.[i] Both before and after the story of Yehudah and Tamar, the Torah highlights Yosef coming to terms with the significance of clothing.


On some level, Yosef serves as Tamar's alter ego. If Tamar felt that she could fool others by wearing certain clothes, it appears that the young Yosef felt that the clothing that he wore could truly determine his own identity. In this regard, it is significant that Yosef does not have his dreams of domination over his family until after his father gives him his special tunic. That this was not lost on his brothers may be seen by the fact that they made sure to strip him of this tunic when throwing him into the pit. Moreover, the Torah itself emphasizes this connection between Yosef and his clothing with the seemingly superfluous information that the tunic the brothers removed was the one “upon him."


In Potiphar's house also, Yosef takes on a persona that seems to be dictated by his appearance. The Torah tells us that he was of beautiful form and appearance, a description otherwise reserved for women. The rabbis did not miss this allusion and tell us that Yosef groomed himself to an unusual degree while in the house of Potiphar. While this behavior may well have been politically or even religiously motivated, it likely made him appear more feminine than the other men around him. And so, in contrast to Yehudah and Tamar, it is Potiphar's wife who adopts the traditionally more masculine role of the sexual aggressor, whereas Yosef finds himself in the strange position of being the one that is harassed.  It is unlikely that such an unusual situation was only due to Potiphar's wife. Rather, it is also likely to have been brought about by Yosef's actions.[ii] Thus, once Yosef externally appeared more feminine, he seemed to have felt forced to also take on a more feminine role. (Since we all have masculine and feminine sides to our personality, it should be clear to the reader that this is not meant to cast any aspersions on Yosef. The point here, however, has nothing to do with this and is only that Yosef felt compelled to be guided by his externals.)


As opposed to the first time that Yosef had his clothes taken away, the second story tells us that Yosef  left his clothing in Potiphar's wife's hands. This signals that Yosef now saw more of a separation between himself and his clothing than before. In the previous case, he saw himself and his clothing as interchangeable. He could not fathom being without them until they were forcibly removed. A change has taken place since then, as he now willingly releases his clothing into the hands of his adversary. Yet this is an in-between stage: although here he isn’t stripped of his clothing, neither does he initiate the separation from it at this point.


Yosef’s continued spiritual growth is highlighted by the unusual word choice regarding clothing later. This happens twice: first when he changes clothing to appear in front of Pharaoh and then when he gives his brothers clothing before returning to Canaan to bring back their father, Ya'akov. In both cases, the Torah uses the verb chalaf (veyechalef,  chalifot simlaot). Once Yosef leaves the house of Potiphar, the Torah no longer speaks about his clothing being ripped off. In other words, Yosef eventually learns the lesson that Tamar knew all along – that clothing is something that you can change at will without its really changing who you are.


Interestingly, the stages in Yosef’s understanding parallel the stages in his political career. When Yosef viewed himself as inextricably connected to the leadership that his clothing represented, it was torn away from him by force. Just as Napoleon's enemies sought to get rid of the self-appointed "man of destiny," Yosef was exiled. In the house of Potiphar, Yosef's personality was still determined by his clothing, but he had at least realized that one's identity can change. At that point, he is less desperate to hold on to his position of leadership and, presenting a lesser threat, is only imprisoned, not exiled. At some point after that, he is able to divorce himself from his clothing and, like Tamar, view it as something that can be altered. Once he does not have to be the leader just because he is given a leader's clothing by Pharaoh, he is able to stay in power in clothing that no one needs to rip off.


Perhaps the contrast between the stories of Yehudah and Yosef actually drive home the same point under different circumstances. It appears that the lesson that Yehudah must learn about the essence of others, Yosef must learn about himself. Yet common to Yehudah and Yosef is the fact that they do learn and grow from adversity.


More than anything else, this is what unites all our Biblical heroes and makes them such great role models. Whereas an average person may simply react with frustration or anger at being victimized, our great leaders take adversity as a stimulus for introspection and growth.


Obviously, there are rare situations where it is merely a question of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. But when, as with Yehudah and Yosef, we are hurt by those close to us, it is more than likely that we are at least partly responsible for our fate. And since we have much more control over ourselves than over others, the most effective response to such victimization is to see how we can change ourselves. 



[i]         This placement is noted by Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Rabbenu Bachya and others.

[ii]     The Midrash also indicates Yosef’s partial culpability, though perhaps for other reasons.)