Vayeishev , Genesis 37:1-40:23 - Hidden in Plain Sight


December 7, 2009

Week 317, Day 1

20 Kislev 5770



Vayishlach, Genesis 37:1–40:23
Hidden in Plain Sight
Evan Moffic

Several of our commentaries have focused on the power of words. In the Torah, words are a means of creation and revelation; of producing the world, as in Genesis 1-3; and of revealing truths about humanity. Occasionally, a word that recurs in a narrative can hint at an underlying lesson that does not seem obvious in the story itself. We have a beautiful example in this week's Torah reading. 

It is found in the incident between Joseph and the wife of his master Potiphar. A courtier to Pharaoh, Potiphar made Joseph his chief steward. Potiphar's wife—whom the text does not name—was attracted to Joseph and tried to seduce him. When he refused, she succeeded in grabbing an article of his clothing that she presented to her husband as proof that Joseph sought to seduce her. Joseph was thrown in prison (39:11–20).

In Hebrew, the article of clothing is called a beged . The word beged appears six times during the ten verses describing this incident. It is clearly a word that cries out for attention. A clue to its importance can be found in another Hebrew word that shares the root bet-gimel-dalet . It is the word begidah , which means "treachery" or "deception." What is the connection between clothing and treachery? Appearances can deceive. What the eye beholds may hide rather than reveal truth.

In this instance that is certainly the case. Potiphar's wife convinced her husband that Joseph did try to seduce her and her proof is the beged , the article of clothing she took from him. This incident brings to mind an earlier one in which another article of clothing—Joseph's coat—was dipped in blood by his brothers and used to prove to their father that he had been eaten by a wild animal (37:31–33). In both cases, clothing is a means for begidah.

I think we can take this idea beyond simple clothing to argue that the way a situation or even a text appears is often misleading. Truth is often concealed behind layers of deception. The concealment of truth is a core principle of Jewish mystical tradition. The nistar , “hidden” dimension of Torah, is what kabbalists seek to uncover.

The connection between appearances and deception can also give us a way to understand and uncover ourselves. A particular type of clothing is often used to fit in and identify with a certain profession or culture. When I wear a suit and tallit during worship, I occasionally joke that it's my uniform. What we wear sends a message of who we are.

Yet as Eugene Borowitz pointed out in one of his early books, The Mask Jews Wear: The Self-Deceptions of American Jewry, we can deceive others—even ourselves—by the way we appear (New York: Simon and Schuster Publishing, 1973). Style can easily replace substance. By fitting in, we can convince ourselves of our success. The Book of Esther, where appearances and deception play such a critical role, teaches the futility of this exercise.

Esther (from the Hebrew root samach-tav-reish, meaning hide) became queen in Persia and beyond (from India to Ethiopia) but did not identify herself as a Jew. When her cousin and foster father Mordecai discovered Haman's plot to annihilate the Jews of Shushan, he told Esther that it was time to reveal her identity. She hesitated, as any of us might in times of crisis. Difficult times present us with the hardest decisions. Yet, Esther decided to go ahead and reveal her identity. She may well have been persuaded by Mordecai's argument that ultimately, truth and justice will prevail, and that Esther could help bring this about by revealing her identity. As he says, ". . . if you remain silent in this crisis, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another quarter, while you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows, perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis” (Esther 4:14). On Purim, we wear costumes and disguise ourselves as a form of merriment. The costumes illustrate the way our appearances can be easily altered, and our true selves, hidden.

Not only can appearances be used to intentionally hide truth. Occasionally, what we seek is hidden in plain sight all around us. Our eyes focus on what is bright and colorful. We see the frosting but miss the cake. Part of why we read Torah, I think, is to give us a deeper perspective on the world: Torah helps us see the eternal amidst the everyday.

The difficulty of this task is illustrated in a commencement address penned by the late writer David Foster Wallace and published posthumously in a book called This Is Water . It opens with a parable about two young fish swimming in the water. They happen to meet an older fish swimming the opposite way. The older fish nods at them and says, "Morning boys, how's the water." The young fish swim off. A few minutes later, one of them turns to the other and says, "What the hell is water?"

The point of the story, Wallace goes on to say, is that the most important realities are often the most difficult to see. What’s most familiar is often what's least noticed. Growing as a human being, Wallace writes, is an ongoing tutorial in learning what is most important—in figuring out what to notice and where to place our attention. It is not easy. In the age of BlackBerry devices and fifty-inch television screens, thousands of things compete for our attention—possessions, entertainment, frivolity. Yet, when we pray, when we study, when we listen to the wisdom of those who preceded us, we learn how to better focus it. Indeed, Wallace may have unknowingly defined the purpose of Torah when he said that true learning seeks what is so true and what is hidden in plain sight all around us. (See David Foster Wallace,  This Is Water [New York: Little, Brown and Co., 2009], pp. 3, 4, 8).

Copyright © 2009 Rabbi Evan Moffic. All rights reserved.