The People & the Book: Joseph the righteous – but not over much

What did hatzaddik do to get himself in Egypt’s royal dungeon?

What did Joseph hatzaddik do to deserve imprisonment? (photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
What did Joseph hatzaddik do to deserve imprisonment?
(photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
“Don't be such a tzaddik,” my dad would say to me – though, admittedly, not often.
Dad was channeling Ecclesiastes. “Be not overly righteous,” or, as we might say, “Don’t be an über tzaddik!” Among our Torah characters, the rabbis awarded the über tzaddik trophy to Joseph. They even changed his last name to hatzaddik.
Joseph merits the designation of tzaddik because of his refusal to sleep with Mrs. Potiphar. The text is clear, at least the first time.
(Genesis 39:8) Joseph hatzaddik, a virile young man, rebuffed her advances.
It is difficult for me to relate to that Joseph. Indeed, my research suggests just how incredible (as in “not believable”) a hot-blooded Hebrew refusing a golden opportunity for consensual sex would be.
Further, more learned research bolsters my incredulity. The Masoretes, those grammarians who punctuated and scored the Torah, gave Joseph’s refusal a note of indecision. The shalshelet over the word vayema’en (he refused) is a rare trope that, in our case, signifies that Joseph wavered, repeatedly. You can hear his footsteps going up and down the staircase to Mrs. Potiphar’s boudoir. Our boy vacillated, and triumphed – earning himself the appellation of tzaddik for the rest of Jewish history. I can relate to vacillation.
Scholars have long noticed how, on the surface, our Torah portion looks perfectly symmetrical. Joseph’s dreams get him thrown into the first pit, and deciphering others’ dreams gets him out of the second pit.
Just as he was stripped of his cloak by his jealous brothers, so was he again stripped of his cloak by the zealous Mrs. Potiphar. That’s literary symmetry. Even Joseph’s musically oscillating refusal is symmetrical.
But, where is the ethical symmetry? What did Joseph hatzaddik do to deserve imprisonment in Egypt? Where is the Torah’s karmic version of measure for measure? Hillel’s study buddy, Avtalyon, cautions against speaking indiscriminately lest the result be exile. He may have been referring to Joseph who insensitively revealed his dreams of dominance to his already envious brothers. They threw him in a pit, and he ended up in Egypt. That sequence is understandable within the biblical paradigm of being punished for one’s deeds. So, then, what did Joseph do to get himself in Egypt’s royal dungeon for all those long and prime years?
Potiphar is introduced as a saris. Although the word can mean “a royal official,” it also means “eunuch.” If nothing else, the word choice sets the stage for a sexually charged plot line. Genesis Rabbah understands from this term that Potiphar purchased Joseph for sex and was duly, and divinely, castrated as a result. The Hebrew text overflows with double entendres: “Potiphar found Joseph pleasing in his eyes and he served him… He left all that he had in Joseph’s hands and, with him there, did not know of anything except the bread that he ate. And Joseph was well built and handsome.”
Allow me to suggest that Potiphar’s lack of knowledge extended to his wife – he did not know even her. We Jewish men, by the way, are not allowed to ignore our women. Through some creative interpretation and righteous legislation, the rabbis of the Mishnah spelled out our marital debt, as it was called. Yet, as much as Mrs. Potiphar craves Joseph, the Hebrew hunk, she also desires his companionship, “to lie beside me and be with me.” One gets the sense that Potiphar, regardless of possible anatomical deficits, was not an attentive partner.
Mrs. Potiphar, day after day, was relentless. Finally, Joseph enters the house, when no one else is there, “to do his work.” The Talmud’s Rabbi Yochanan acknowledges that Mrs.
Potiphar’s persistent coaxing had dissolved Joseph’s resolve.
As the accompanying haftara queries, “Can two walk together without knowing one another?” (Amos 3:3) But our haftara also piously suggests there was no consummation. Our tzaddik’s overpowering morality undermined his bio-mechanics.
“The bow grasper [archer] will not stand… Even the most stouthearted warrior will escape naked that day.” Amos, of course, did not have Joseph hatzaddik in mind – but the rabbis, who chose his words as our haftara, did. Regardless of consummation, for his bow did not stand and he escaped naked, Joseph was consumed by lust.
The true climax of our story has been discreetly cloaked by the etnachta of verse 12, the pregnant pause between Mrs. Potiphar grasping Joseph, and Joseph escaping and leaving his beged (yet another double entendre meaning both cloak and betrayal) in her hand. Only later, when Mrs. Potiphar “sees” that Joseph had left his cloak, does she call out to the servants who had not been there when Joseph arrived.
And so he languished in the royal dungeon for surrendering to desire.
Even Joseph wasn’t an über tzaddik . That’s a Joseph to whom I can relate. Shai Cherry is the director of Shaar Hamayim, a Jewish Learning Center in Solana Beach, California, and the author of ‘Torah through Time: Understanding Bible Commentary from the Rabbinic Period to Modern Times’