Two young yeshivah students stood in the middle of Times Square on a Friday afternoon, armed with a pair of tefillin. They sought Jewish passersby and offered them the opportunity to do the mitzvah of tefillin if they had not yet done so.

After some time had passed, a gentleman approached them and asked, “I don’t understand! How can you stand here, right underneath the very un-Jewish advertisement on the billboard up there?!”

“What advertisement?” the two yeshivah students asked. As the gentleman pointed to the offensive material, the boys reacted, “Oh, wow, we didn’t notice that!”

Joseph Changes His Clothes

Our parshah picks up two years after the conclusion of the last, where we left Joseph languishing in prison. The narrative shifts to Pharaoh, who’s having terrible dreams and is befuddled as to their meaning. Word gets around the palace that Pharaoh is looking for a good interpreter, and it is then that the butler remembers Joseph.

He reports to Pharaoh about the remarkably gifted young man in prison, and Joseph is hastily summoned to appear before the king:

So Pharaoh sent and called Joseph, and they rushed him from the dungeon, and he was shorn and changed his clothes, and he [then] came to Pharaoh.1

Now, if you’re bringing a prisoner fresh out of his cell to appear before the king, he obviously needs to be freshened up out of basic respect for the monarch. As such, Joseph’s haircut and change of clothes seem to be exceedingly banal and routine details. Why, then, does the Torah go out of its way to highlight them?

Of Shepherds and Kings

There’s much significance to both details, but we’re going to focus on the change of clothing.2

Chassidic thought spends a lot of time examining the protagonists in the Bible, unpacking their specific themes and messages. Joseph and his brother make for a particularly instructive character study, as they couldn’t be more different.

Think about it: All eleven brothers shared the same occupation: shepherding. When they finally arrived in Egypt after the drama with Joseph had fully unfolded, they presented themselves to Pharaoh as “Your servants are shepherds, both we and our forefathers.”3 Shepherding was the legacy of the Jacobite family.

Joseph took a radically different career path. Wrested from the place of his youth at a very young age, he was forced into Egypt with little choice for anything, let alone the option to take up shepherding. Despite the odds, Joseph rose through the ranks and eventually landed the top position in the country, effectively becoming king of Egypt.

Eleven brothers as shepherds, and one practically a king!

Now, what’s the core difference between these two career paths?

Well, shepherds are naturally a secluded bunch. Constantly grazing their herds, they are away from urbanity and humanity, in tune with the song of nature instead. It’s the perfect job for the spiritual seeker, affording the shepherd the chance to wander deep into nature and connect with G‑d among the sweeping breezes of the meadows.

Looking at it that way, it only makes sense that Jacob’s sons were shepherds. As the holy and G‑dly scions of a spiritual legacy, they sought out a profession suitable to that tradition.

By contrast, Joseph was in the thick of things, right there in the epicenter of urban life. In spiritual terms, the Egyptian throne and everything that comes along with it was the last place to seek G‑dliness.

Yet Joseph remained steadfast, maintaining his commitment to the religion of his youth and the G‑d of his forefathers.

But how? What was his secret?

Joseph, the Man with Many Suits

Joseph’s secret was his ability to “change clothes.”

Clothing is not you; it’s something you put on in the morning and take off at night, changing at will and according to circumstance.

Joseph understood that who he really was had nothing to do with where he was, what he did, or with whom he associated. He was Jacob’s son, a servant of G‑d, and a deeply committed Jew. That would never change. Everything else was simply a suit he put on in the morning for work and took off at night when the day was done. The entire time he wore those clothes, he understood that they didn’t define him; he remained entirely above them.

Such was the power of Joseph’s soul and the strength of his commitment. Even while sitting on the Egyptian throne, he could put on one set of clothes and quickly switch it out for another if needed—for all of it had nothing to do with who he really was.

The Torah makes a point of telling us that at the pivotal moment when Joseph emerges from incarceration to begin his journey to the throne, what did he do? He changed his clothes. For that was his strength.

Are You Becoming Your Clothing?

We would do well to learn from Joseph. Life demands all types of situations, and most of us don’t have the luxury of being shepherds. Our lives inevitably look much more like Joseph’s than that of his 11 brothers.

Truth is, in today’s day and age, there’s really no such thing as “shepherd life.” You can be secluded on an island, but as long as you have Wifi, you’re in the world as much as anyone else. It’s right there in your pocket. Even in the thickest rainforest or remote mountaintop, with the inundation of everyday life crashing on you in the hotel at night, you may as well be sitting on the Egyptian throne, or in Times Square.

We’re all Joseph today. And the only way we can be successful in holding on to our values, the morals and religious convictions we hold dear, is by mastering this ability to change clothes.

Ask yourself, who is the real you? Who am I really? What do I truly believe? Once you’ve identified that, make sure that wherever you go, whatever you do, whomever you associate with, if it isn’t in line with your values, then “change your clothes.” Remain distinct, and remind yourself this isn’t really you. You are something else, an internal fortress that’s only wearing a costume right now.

If that device in your pocket becomes part of who you are, then the clothing has morphed into skin. If it’s something you simply use at convenience, and you’re easily able to put it away (think Shabbat), or remain impervious to its influence, then great. You’ve mastered the clothing trick. Your soul is attached to her Creator, and you’re journeying through this earth simply to find G‑dliness everywhere.

And then, you, too, can stand in Times Square and not notice anything.4