Parashat Miketz: A story about fate

God presents us time and time again with the choice of acting correctly, with honesty and integrity, or acting immorally.

 Rembrandt - Joseph Accused by Potiphar's Wife (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Rembrandt - Joseph Accused by Potiphar's Wife
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Last week, we read the tales of Joseph being thrown into a pit by his brothers and sold into slavery in Egypt. He initially succeeds as a slave to the king of Egypt’s sar hatabachim (captain of the bodyguards) but then is thrown into jail due to a false accusation made by his wife. Joseph finds himself in the lowest position possible: being both a prisoner and a slave in a foreign land. 

At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion – Miketz – we see a sharp turn in the narrative. Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, has dreams that disturb his sleep. Joseph, who had in the past proved himself in jail as a dream interpreter, is plucked from jail and rushed to the king’s palace. 

Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dream to the king’s satisfaction, and he even advises the king how to act in response to the heavenly message in his dreams. Pharaoh, deeply impressed by Joseph’s wisdom, appoints him as his viceroy and the acting ruler over the Egyptian empire. All at once, Joseph rises from the depths of the prison pit to the great heights of royalty.

Once becoming the viceroy, Joseph marries a woman named Osnat, the daughter of Poti Phera. The sound of the name Poti Phera might be familiar. We remember the wife of Potiphar, who had her eyes on Joseph and tried to seduce him at every opportunity. We recall Joseph’s stubborn refusal as he stood by his moral principles, as well as the price of Potiphar’s wife’s revenge and Joseph’s subsequent imprisonment. 

According to some commentators, Poti Phera and Potiphar are one and the same. If so, when the Torah reveals the identity of Osnat, Joseph’s wife, it also reveals an amazing story behind their marriage. Joseph, who courageously withstood the temptations of Potiphar’s wife and was thrown into jail because of her, ends up marrying her daughter. 

Let’s focus on two lessons we can learn from this story. The first, and simpler one, is that God sees to it that a person will not lose out if he stands on his moral principles, and when the wheel turns, he will discover that he even benefited. 

But this story also contains a more profound lesson. Often, a person acts immorally out of fear of missing out on something, personally as well as financially. He is sure the not-completely-kosher money he can make is the gateway to his financial wellbeing. He is sure the inappropriate relationship he is pursuing is the gateway to his happiness and good life. Perhaps he is also sure if he doesn’t attain control over his surroundings by inappropriate means, he will remain alone, abandoned, and unloved. 

But divine truth tells a different story. God presents us time and time again with the choice of acting correctly, with honesty and integrity, or acting immorally. We will get the share of happiness and financial wellbeing that God has allotted to us in life either way.

But God gives us the choice of how to get it – honestly or immorally. Sometimes it takes us time to discern how the choice to avoid enjoyment of immoral acts is the path that leads us to complete happiness, but we must remain patient, like Joseph. 

Divine fate was meant to lead Joseph to a relationship with a woman from Potiphar’s family, but he was given the choice of either caving in to temptation and going into this relationship in a forbidden manner, leading inevitably to his spiritual and material destruction, or being patient, even if that meant sitting in jail without having done anything to deserve it, but then ultimately – because he stood on his moral principles – marrying Osnat and being appointed viceroy of the Egyptian empire. 

The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.