The Torah tells us that one who owns a Jewish slave must release him after the sixth year. He is to leave his master the same way he came. Rashi explains that the expression “b’gapo” in the pasuk means that he is not married. He leaves “with his cloak”; in other words, if he came only as he was, alone within his clothing, that is how he is to leave. According to Rashi, the metaphor for being single is one’s garment.
What is the connection between a person’s garment and being single? The answer, explains Rav Yissocher Frand shlita, is that we define a person who is single as being one whose world ends at the end of his garment. He is a self-contained unit. His world ends where he ends. For this reason, by a traditionally “Yekke” (German Jewry) wedding, as well as at a Sephardic wedding, the chasan puts on a talis and spreads it over himself and his bride. This ritual acts out the very implication of our metaphor. Under the chupah, at the moment of his marriage, the chasan demonstrates that his world has now been extended – his kallah is now part of his life – by spreading his garment over someone else in addition to himself. In essence, he is saying, “My coat now has to cover someone else.”
There is a story told by Rav Elimelech Biderman shlita about a small town in Siberia, where the frigid temperatures and desolate wilderness made for long and lonely stretches of civilization. In this waylaid town, there lived an elderly father and his son, who barely eked out a living under the harsh conditions. One day, the father and son came to the local rabbi with a dispute. Each one was laying claim to the one coat in the house. Each one felt that he was more deserving of this coat.
The rabbi listened as they explained that the elderly father stayed home while the son went off to work each day. The father said that he needed the coat; otherwise he would freeze to death as there was no heating in the house and the walls were insufficient to keep out the winds. The son, on the other hand, claimed that his need was far more pressing because he was out working all day in the exposed fields. If he didn’t have the protection of the coat, he would never survive.
The rabbi looked at the father and asked him how he would respond to the son’s legitimate claim. The father retorted that as the son was working and moving about during the day, after a while he would warm up and not need the coat.
The son shook his head, not accepting this response. He replied that even though their house was full of unplugged holes, it was still preferable to be indoors as there was always some shelter to be found. Plus, they had a stove.
The two complainants continued to argue back and forth, and the rabbi was unsure how to proceed. Who should get to wear the coat? He thought long and hard but could not come up with a valid decision. He told the pair to give him some time to study the matter in depth, and then come back in two days time when he would give them an answer.
As they trudged back to their dilapidated and freezing hovel, both the father and his son begin to assess the claim of the other one. Each man tried to understand the other’s counterpoint and what the coat would mean to him. By putting himself in the other one’s shoes, they both came to the realization that perhaps the other was right after all. He really does need the coat more than me. I will manage as best as I can without the coat. This became the new crux of their argument.
As a result, on their return to the rabbi two days later, the father and the son were still arguing vehemently; but this time, each was claiming that the other one should take the coat!
On hearing both of them present their cases once again, the rabbi asked them to wait a few moments. He left the room only to return almost immediately with a warm coat in his hand that he gave to them, telling them that now they would both have a coat to wear. Of course, both father and son thanked the rabbi profusely and stood up to leave.
As they got to the door, the son turned around and asked the Rabbi why he hadn’t just given them the coat two days ago. The rabbi answered that when they were both fighting because each one thought that he needed the coat more, the rabbi thought to himself that he also needed his coat. But when they returned with each one thinking about the other, and agreeing to manage without the coat, the rabbi thought to himself that he could also think about others and manage without his coat!