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Vayeshev: Torah and couture

The strange soap opera of Vayeshev

This upcoming Shabbat we're reading from parashat Vayeshev, which contains within it the story of Joseph and Potiphar's wife. It's a veritable soap opera: the "well built and handome" foreign slave who rises to prominence; the lascivious wife who demands sexual favors, and who tears away his clothing to use as evidence against him when he denies her; the slave cast into prison for the crime he refuses to commit. Can't you just hear the swirling music as the camera zooms in on Joseph's stricken face at the end of the episode?

Well, actually, Joseph never shows much emotion at all, even when things go radically wrong for him. In this post I'm going to look at the pivotal moment of Joseph's refusal, and then explore one of the story's recurring phrases to see what that motif can tell us about how Joseph stays so calm in times like these.

Potiphar's wife's demand is startlingly direct: "Lie with me." Joseph's response, in turn, is strangely pragmatic. "Look, with me here, my master gives no thought to anything in this house, and all that he owns he has placed in my hands. He wields no more authority in this house than I, and he has withheld nothing from me except yourself, since you are his wife. How then could I do this most wicked thing and sin before God?" (JPS translation) Is it just me, or is that kind of an odd response? Mostly he's explaining why he doesn't want to wrong Potiphar; that adultery is a "sin before God" is almost an afterthought.

In Joseph and Potiphar's Wife: A Study of Moral Ambivalence, Rabbi Peter J. Rubenstein writes,

Multiple explanations for Joseph's refusal are offered: Joseph yearned for his father Jacob's high regard and feared tarnishing himself. He was afraid of Potiphar and wanted to stay pure before God. But the Torah gives us Joseph's own explanation in his response to his master's wife: "He [Potiphar] wields no more authority in this house than I, and he has withheld nothing from me except yourself, since you are his wife. How then could I do this most wicked thing and sin before God?" (Genesis 39:9) Thus Joseph, with due allegiance to his boss and master, recoils from the seductive invitation.

But what, we might ask, would have been Joseph's response if Potiphar had not been so gracious to him? Would Joseph then have felt no scruples in becoming involved with Potiphar's wife and thus have sinned before God?

Joseph's motivating rationale is both resonant and troubling. He connects his moral attitude toward adultery with his feelings about Potiphar. Since Potiphar has been good to him, he will not succumb to his wife. But if Potiphar had not been kind, could we infer that Joseph would have become sexually involved with this married woman?

I'm not sure there's an answer; I just think it's a fascinating question.  (On a related note, another essay from the Torat Chayim archive that's worth reading on this portion is Joseph and Potiphar's Wife: Conscience over Consequence, in which Rabbi Neal Katz draws on a midrash from Bereshit Rabbah to explore why Joseph turns down Potiphar's wife.) Anyway, for one reason or another, Joseph does the right thing. And he doesn't resort to histrionics, either when Potiphar's wife propositions him or when Potiphar has him thrown in jail. His life is a rollercoaster, but Joseph is remarkably mellow.

The text gives us a clue to the origins of Joseph's equanimity. The phrase "YHVH was with Joseph" appears four times in this chapter, forming (in the words of the JPS Torah commentary) "a literary framework within which the narrative is encased." The motif appears twice in the first section (God was with him, and Potiphar saw that God was with him), and twice in the last section (even in the prison God was with him, and the chief jailer put him in charge of things because God was with him.) One traditional explanation holds that "God was with him" means "the name of God never left his mouth." That said, I'm inclined to read the phrase simply; the presence of God was with him, wherever he went. God favored him and made him successful.

But if God was with him, why did this whole unpleasant situation unfold in the first place? The guy was sold into slavery, accused of attempted rape, and wrongfully imprisoned -- does that sound like the life story of a guy with God on his side? If I read this kind of lurid account in the newspaper today, it would never occur to me that the poor sod was blessed by the Holy One and that God made him successful in all things. Except, of course, the text tells us just that. What do we make of the disjunction?

Obviously having God "be with him" doesn't mean things will happen the way Joseph wants them to. In fact, things might unfold in a way that, from his limited human perspective, seems unjust and painful. But because God is with him, Joseph isn't thrown by Potiphar's wife's demand, or crushed by his changed circumstances. God's presence changes the quality of his life, and that's true regardless of whether he finds favor in the eyes of other men.

As it happens, God has a plan. Joseph has to be enslaved so he can wind up in Egypt; he has to fall into imprisonment so he can interpret dreams for Pharaoh's servants, so he can interpret a dream for Pharaoh, so he can become Pharaoh's vizier, so he can steward the land's food and save them from famine, so he can save his family, so the Israelites can come to Egypt, so they can become enslaved and then eventually freed by God with the help of Moses. (Suddenly the narrative structure of Had Gadya makes a lot more sense to me!) In other words, Joseph's downfall is important because without it, he couldn't have risen up. The ancient Israelites' descent into slavery is important because it gave meaning to freedom. Without freedom, we couldn't have prepared ourselves for revelation. Without revelation, we wouldn't be the Jewish people today.

Joseph couldn't have known what would arise out of his experiences. But because God was with him, maybe he was able to trust that good things were coming -- that out of suffering comes growth, that from rock bottom the only way out is up.

That God was with Joseph didn't ensure that his path would be smooth, but God's presence enabled him to make moral choices, to eschew temptation, and to steer clear of despair. Because God was with him, he was able to act wisely and to calmly face his fortunes, both good and ill. As the Woody Guthrie song says, God was responsible for all the twists and turns in Joseph's story...and as the last line of "Adon Olam" reminds us, when we know God is with us, we will not fear.

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