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A Cruel Uncovering

A Cruel Uncovering

Parshat Vayeishev

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Martin Greenfield was sent to the right, and found himself in the Auschwitz tailor shop. His first assignment was to clean and iron a Nazi’s shirt. He cleaned it, but ripped the collar. For this indiscretion, he was beaten. But at the end of the day, he picked up the shirt, put it on beneath his own, and buttoned it up all the way to the collar. The shirtThe shirt accompanied him until his liberation accompanied him until his liberation. “I washed the Naziness out. It’s done, in the water, in the soap, finished. It was my shirt . . . It made me feel like a person.1

That Jewish tailor’s insight, that clothes reflect our personhood, lend us assertiveness, and bestow dignity upon its wearer, can be traced to the biblical saga of Joseph and his misfortunes.

Two great injustices befall Joseph in his lifetime. His own brothers sell him into slavery. And once he gains prominence in the home of Potiphar, Pharaoh's Chamberlain, he is imprisoned after being framed for rape by his master’s wife.

Slavery and imprisonment rob the totality of the individual. A slave can author great accomplishments, but they are all ascribed to his owner. His creations of mind and hand are not credited to him; he or she has no identity. A prisoner, too, has no range of movement. The prisoner is denied the basic human impulse—to rove the earth unfettered.

How do Joseph’s oppressors summon the gall to strip him of his freedom? In both instances, Joseph held powerful positions. Prior to his selling, he was his father’s most cherished son. His brothers may bear a personal resentment towards him, but how do they find it within themselves to sell the apple of their father’s eye? In the home of Potiphar, Joseph found immediate success and was well liked by his master, “He made him his personal attendant and put him in charge of his household, placing in his hands all that he owned.2” Here too, what mechanism does Potiphar’s wife use to spoil the trust and prestige her husband had extended to Joseph?

There is a curious parallel in these two stories of debasement: Joseph’s garments are taken from him. Joseph approaches his brothers in the field, and when he arrives we read, “they stripped Joseph of his tunic, the ornamented tunic that he was wearing, and took him and cast him into the pit.3

The same process unfolds in Potiphar’s home. The woman of the house attempts to seduce Joseph, but fails. He flees, leaving his garment in her hand. She holds onto this garment and uses it as damning evidence of Joseph’s guilt: “Then she told [her husband] … ‘The Hebrew slave whom you brought into our house came to me to toy with me; but when I screamed…he left his garment with me and fled outside.4’ ”

Joseph’s famous multi-colored tunic is the unmistakable marker of his identity. It was the symbol of his prestige. If a streak of color caught your eyes’ attention, you knew Joseph had passed by. Before he could be cast into a pit, he had to be stripped of his personal identity. Before his freedom was taken from him—his coat was. As long as the brothers recognized his uniqueness, they could not abuse his humanity. Only once they have averted their eyes from his individuality— “stripped of his tunic” —can they proceed to cast him in a pit.

Potiphar’s wife knew this too. The garment she grabs cannot be an unrecognizable one, a commonplace cloak. For how would it serve as proof of Joseph’s identity? It was a cloak unique to Joseph. Again, it is a metaphor for what makes him different; the thoughts and feelings that are his alone. To topple Joseph from his tower of honor, to imprison him, she had to remove his garment—deny him legitimacy as an individual. This is why she stresses to her husband, “the Hebrew slave you brought.” He is a slave. He has no garment; he is not a person with a unique inner world like me and you. That is someone you can imprison without a tinge of horror.

Unfair treatment does not spring from one’s heart without precedent. It grows from the seed of denying another’s personal identity. When you peel off the layers of thought, sentiment, elation and pain that make each of us unique, you desensitize yourself to that person’s humanity. They become whatever you want them to become. The first, and most dangerous, mistake one can make in living and interacting with a person with a disability is to loseWhat stands between respect and defilement? sight of his or her varied and vibrant life. That this person has a family, a job, interests and hobbies and ideas that make them special is the most important thing about them. But if we disregard all that, and define people solely by some external restraint, then what is left to bind you together? What prevents you from denying their basic humanity?

Norman Kunc was born with cerebral palsy; his experiences led him to become a self-advocate for himself and other people with disabilities. In his words: “The fact is that a very small part of my life gets blown up into a very big part. Unfortunately, too many people see me as nine-tenths disability, one-tenth person.5

What stands between respect and defilement? Joseph’s colorful coat. As long as we see the colorful coat draped over each of our fellow human being’s shoulders—if we appreciate that each of us has a meaningful and valuable life—then no one will be cast into the pit of society’s neglect.

Footnotes
3.
Ibid, 37:23.
4.
Ibid, 39: 17-18.
5.
Giangreco, M.F. (2004). "The stairs didn't go anywhere!": A self-advocate's reflections on specialized services and their impact on people with disabilities. In M. Nind, J. Rix, K. Sheehy, & K. Simmons, K. (Eds.) (pp. 32-42). Inclusive education: Diverse perspectives. London: David Fulton Publishers in association with The Open University.
This article was produced in partnership by the Ruderman Chabad Inclusion Initiative (RCII) and the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute (JLI).
Sefira Ross is a freelance designer and illustrator whose original creations grace many Chabad.org pages. Residing in Seattle, Washington, her days are spent between multitasking illustrations and being a mom.
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Rachel India December 25, 2016

Beautiful Wonderfully written. Thank you Reply

James Martin Cheltenham, Glos, England December 20, 2016

Christian Comment This resonates with me - my parents stripped me of all dignity for the crime of declaring myself Christian. Reply

Anonymous December 20, 2016

Great insight. Reply

Thabi South Africa December 18, 2016

Wow! Truthful, powerful words. Beautiful. Reply