Parshat VaYeshev Drash by Martin Rawlings-Fein
Shabbat Shalom and and early Happy Chanukah to all of you!
Tonight we get the first draft of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, a story with a definite star. In VaYeshev, or where [Jacob] “Settled,” we meet Joseph, favorite child of Jacob, grandchild of Isaac, great-grandchild of Abraham, who, by all accounts, is the leading person of zis own story -- and by the way, I'll be using “z” pronouns for Joseph’s gender -- you'll see why later. Joseph is gifted an ornamental coat by zis father, or a coat of many colors as many of us know the story. Joseph then finds zis brothers out in the field and tells them about dreams that zie had wherein zis brothers gathered bundles of grain, and those bundles bowed to Joseph’s. In another, the sun, the moon, and eleven stars also bowed to Joseph, which angers the brothers so much that they sell Joseph into slavery. Joseph’s siblings bring the coat back soaked in blood to say that a wild animal has eaten zim, much to the dismay of their father, Jacob. Then we get to know Joseph in another setting as zie becomes a personal servant to Potiphar, the captain of Pharaoh's guard. Joseph grows and becomes zis own person, only to be thrown into prison after a false accusation of rape.
The Parsha begins with a portrait of Jacob and his children. Joseph has 11 male siblings, and all of them are envious of Joseph. Zie brings terrible reports of the siblings to zis father. Joseph also takes pleasure in telling the siblings of zis dreams. As one commentator Avivah Zornberg writes in her book Genesis: The Beginning of Desire, “Joseph behaves with the narcissism of youth, with a dangerous unawareness of the inner worlds of others.” Let’s face it, Joseph is a bit of a gossip, running to father all the time with a story or two about zis brothers. However, in all of this, the last straw is one that zie cannot control, a father’s love.
Joseph’s father, Jacob, loved zim so much that he gave Joseph an ornamented tunic. Joseph’s brothers were already upset with zim. Still, when they saw this tangible gift that ultimately symbolized Jacob's celebrated love for Joseph, their feelings developed into nothing but seething hatred. The ketonet passim, or ornamented tunic, was probably the fanciest bit of clothing anyone had ever seen. Midrashim, such as B’reishit Rabbah 84:7, describes Joseph as “penciling [zis] eyes, curling [zis] hair, and lifting [zis] heel,” in essence dressing in the fiercest drag, and by gifting zim with the ornamented coat, Jacob shows his acceptance/approval of his child as zie is. This idea of Joseph, the drag queen, is an old one. From the early centuries of the common era, rabbis discussed how different Joseph was and the feminine aspects of zis demeanor.
Why would any of zis shepherding brothers want an ornamented tunic like that? Perhaps there was more than envy behind their gaze, and maybe the gift highlighted Joseph's feminine side or gender nonconformity. They began plotting the end of their sibling not long after the fiercest gift was given. Homo/biphobia and transphobia are all sides of the same coin, misogyny. Joseph’s gender nonconformity is written in the text as part of zis physical description, which mirrors prior texts about women, using language about zis form and beauty that the Torah does not usually use for men. Now I won’t lie to you. The idea that Joseph was one of us, a gender outlaw, a drag queen, and queer as funk, is a breath of fresh air for me. Here I thought I would be discussing sinat hinam or baseless hatred that I didn’t know well, but in fact, I know this kind of hate all too well. I live through it.
As a trans person, I navigate the world where people disrespect my gender daily. You know it is serious when a man like myself gets called she or told that I could never be a man by folks who don’t know me. What if Joseph were the most fabulous queen, even 1700 years before the common era, and we never got to know just how fantastic all because some scribes refused to see Joseph in all zis queerness, the same way that people today refuse to see trans folks in all our beauty. But I digress. We do get to know the person that Joseph was, whether in drag or out. That person grew into a space where zie could be zieself fully and learn to interpret zis and others’ dreams. How amazing is that? That one could be so introspective and be so close to another that their dreams are like open books. I couldn’t do it, but then I am not Joseph, and I don’t have the fiercest frock.
As LGBTQ people, in 2022, we are still disowned by our own families. Sometimes we can recover part of our families of origin after years of work on all sides. Sometimes like Joseph, we have to choose to make a family with people far away from our origins. I gave up on many of my family who couldn’t get my pronouns right or struggled with my name. My mother gave me hope and never gave up celebrating me in all my masculinity. When I was a child, we shopped in the boy’s section of department stores, and I dressed the way I wanted, and I was comfortable because she saw me. My mother saw my true self before I ever did. As a father, I see Jacob getting that tunic back covered in blood, and all I can think is don’t give up hope. It is hard to lose a child, yet every day, parents willingly let their children leave when they come out. The struggle is how do we reach the folks who can’t wrap their head around difference and allow for those breakthrough conversations to happen?
In this Parshah, we see Joseph grow and change from the selfish youth who does not see the inner machinations that would cause anyone to hate and transition into a person who can interpret the dreams of others by divining their internal struggle. It is truly a spectacular journey that trans folks go through with families of origin intact and not. And we don’t have to accept trivial tolerance. Joseph’s brothers tolerated him until they didn’t. Tolerance is never enough. We should take nothing less than a full celebration of the unique beings that we are without reservation. Jacob, Joseph’s father, knew this. He celebrated his child’s uniqueness with aplomb and gifted zim with that ornamental tunic that made it to Broadway. May all of our stories end up there!
Keyn y'hi ratzon
May It Be So.
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Martin Rawlings-Fein (Delegate from AD 19) is a Jewish, Bi+, Trans, Father of Two, SF*EB BiCon Co-Founder, DEI Co-Chair, EdTech Specialist, Sometime Rabbinic Student, & Writer of Queer Liturgy.