Please enjoy a D’var Torah this week from Jared Skoff, Rosh Tikvah 2017. Originally from Cleveland, Jared spent the past four summers at Ramah Wisconsin, after working at Ramah Canada for three summers. This is Jared’s third year working year-round for Camp Ramah, first as a Ramah Service Corps Fellow in Detroit, and now as the Program Director at the National Ramah headquarters in New York City.
Don’t Celebrate Too Early
by Jared Skoff
Premature celebration is frowned upon in the Ashkenazic Jewish psyche. It is a longstanding superstition for Jews to be wary of premature compliments or congratulations, to ward off Ayin Hara, “the evil eye” that is waiting to ruin your good fortune.
Rabbinic texts are replete with warnings about the evil eye. The rabbinic law code the Shulchan Aruch instructs us, “some say not to make the blessing for two grooms together, because of the evil eye” – a double wedding is too noticeably joyous. Rabbinic sources also connect the custom of breaking a glass at the chuppah with warding off the evil eye, to temper celebration with a minor destruction. To this day, Jewish families will rarely have a baby shower before their child is born. Many will not even utter the name of their child until the official baby naming or bris.
“For generations of Jews…liking is only the first step to losing,” writes Yiddishist Michael Wex, if “they” [evil spirits] know that you love it, “they’ll” try to take it…So, if you’ve got to like something, like it quietly, so no one can see.”
In Vayeishev, Jacob transgresses this cardinal rule of Yiddish neuroticism. Not only does he favor his son Joseph, but he gives him a כתונת פסים / k’tonet pasim, literally a striped tunic, to declare his favoritism to the world. And the evil eye is waiting to pounce.
Joseph’s coat is a public declaration of status. He flaunts his coat of many colors and broadcasts his metaphorical dream implying that one day his father, mother, and all of his brothers will bow down to him.
The brothers’ response? In your dreams! They frame Joseph’s death and sell their favored brother into slavery.
The Joseph narrative foreshadows a longstanding Jewish discomfort with boasting or celebrating before success is a sure thing.
Not only in ancient days, but also in the modern day, this cautious temperament clashes with social pressure to perform. Whenever a wide receiver is fifteen yards away from a touchdown, he starts to lift his hand up in celebration. There are over two million videos on YouTube called “Never Celebrate Too Early,” compilations of athletes quite literally dropping the ball post-celebration and pre-touchdown.
Today’s generation overwhelmingly experiences this pressure to perform through social media. Like Joseph’s ketonet pasim, social media is a modern tool of status and fame. For many of us, rather than a coat of many colors to flaunt, we have an Instagram of many colors. We have social pressure to publish every minor (and major) life update. And we feel pressure to send out a press release when our plans change.
On the internet, every celebration feels public and often premature, as does every disappointment. Like Jacob and Joseph, the more we emphasize and feed off of the social power that our modern day colored coats grant us, the more we entrust our happiness to public scrutiny. Likewise, Joseph’s power as the favorite son fades when his brothers refuse to accept his coat as a status symbol.
Ironically, Joseph’s prediction to his brothers earlier in the story does come true (in next week’s reading). In making his conceited and premature announcement, Joseph undermines his own authentic talents and forfeits his credibility. And Jacob’s gift of the coat, labeling Joseph as the favored one, damages any possible kinship between the brothers. Jacob and Joseph both celebrate at improper times, and whether it is the work of the evil eye or the brothers’ human nature, they both pay the price. Joseph is ultimately able to redeem himself and nurture his true talent by using his predictions to help others, rather than self-promote.
Stripped of his extravagant coat, Joseph’s talent remains.
Jewish tradition teaches us not to let the promise of success get to our head; nothing is automatic without perseverance. But the tradition also teaches us never to give up on our hidden potential and raw talent.
In the spirit of the Joseph story, we can all strive to find and nurture our personal talents, using them thoughtfully and celebrating them humbly, when the time is right.