Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife, as imagined by Italian painter Guido Reni, 1575-1642.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
This week’s parasha of Vayeshev deals mostly with the story of Joseph, Jacob’s favorite son. Joseph, the handsome youth, gets preferential treatment from his father, leading to his brothers’ feelings of jealousy and hatred.
At the end of the first part of the story, we read about the brothers selling Joseph into slavery. Joseph is taken as a slave to Egypt, where he is sold to serve in the house of Potiphar, one of Pharaoh’s ministers.
The Hebrew slave proves himself to be a success with a golden touch in Potiphar’s house. This pleases his master who decides to put the running of his house and business in Joseph’s hands.
We can already discern a central theme in the story: Joseph’s fall from the peak of success to the depths of despair, with the next stage again being his rise in status, again his fall into the abyss, and again rise to greatness – with the end of the story becoming clear only at the end of the Book of Genesis. Joseph ultimately dies as the assistant to Pharaoh, and the leader of the entire family.
But let’s get back to where we are in the story. Now Joseph – still a slave – is running Potiphar’s home and business. The handsome and successful Joseph’s control of his master’s house is described in the Torah as complete: the master is unaware of what is happening in his house other than what is served to him at mealtimes.
We will soon see why this is such an important detail.
Conditions are ripening for the next stage: The master’s wife desires Joseph. She harasses him day after day, prodding him, flirting with him, tempting him – but Joseph rejects her advances.
Before we try to understand how Joseph explained his refusal, let’s complete the story of the parasha: The temptress is deeply hurt by Joseph’s rejection, and after a short physical altercation between them, she makes up a story saying that he tried to rape her, which leads to him being thrown into an Egyptian prison. Don’t worry, he’ll come out of there victorious, but we won’t hear about that this week… So what did Joseph say to his master’s wife when he rejected her vehement flirtations? Let’s read his words: “Behold, with me my master knows nothing about anything in the house, and all he has he has given into my hand. In this house, there is no one greater than I, and he has not withheld anything from me except you, insofar as you are his wife. Now, how can I commit this great evil, and sin against God?” (Genesis 39, 8-9).
Joseph offers a lengthy explanation of the moral principle that motivates him. The master was good to him, gave him status, honor, control. How could he betray his trust? How could he, the slave that rose to greatness, harm his benefactor in such a heinous manner? This is Joseph’s claim, but not in its entirety. At the end, he adds two words that shed a different light on what he means. He ends with the words “…how can I commit this great evil, and sin against God?”
Joseph is patiently explaining that the moral iniquity he is being asked to commit is not only a sin against man but is also one against God. As opposed to those who might think that morality falls into the category of atheism, as opposed to those who might see moral rationales as separate from religious ones, Joseph believes otherwise. Joseph, who merited the name “Joseph the Righteous” because of these words, understands that harming a person is harming God, that betrayal of his benefactor is a betrayal of God’s values. This he will not do.
Before we do anything, we must first try to ascertain what God wants. We must distance ourselves from sinning against any man, because that is a sin against God as well. The writer is the rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.