September 21, 2019

Weekly Parsha: Vayeishev

One verse, five voices. Edited by Salvador Litvak, Accidental Talmudist

He has not withheld anything from me except you, because you are his wife. Now how can I commit this great evil, and sin against God? – Genesis 39:9

Rabbi Cheryl Peretz
Associate Dean, Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies

“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”
— Abraham Lincoln

Joseph’s rise as a trusted associate of Pharoah is among one of the most curious stories of the Bible. From the adversity of his own childish brotherly taunting to being sold into slavery to the accusation of infidelity that follow this verse, Joseph certainly faces his own share of adversity.

Recognizing that God is present with him and that he has Potiphar’s vote of confidence, Joseph is made personal attendant and later, minster over the entire house. Seen for his talent, Joseph gains prominence and power. By all Biblical accounts, he is quite successful.

A true test of his character, Joseph is tempted with sex. Knowing how fragile is his success, to whom he owes loyalty, and that he always stands in front of God, Joseph affirms that to pretend he can do anything he might want to do just because he wields power would be corrupt and morally bankrupt.  

Much in life is absolute wrong or absolute right. Still, there are those who justify small steps even when they know they are wrong, beginning a slippery slope of rationalization and moral equivalency that leads to greater out-of-character acts.

In contrast, in this moment, Joseph knows that he may be in charge of the house, but it is not his home. To assume otherwise would be a violation of all that is sacred and a perversion of his own character.

Rabbi Matt Shapiro
Temple Beth Am

Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler emphasized the importance of moments when an individual could go one way or another on his path in life, when the outcome is uncertain. We all experience them; if we’re lucky enough, we notice them, and make a mindful decision toward goodness and growth. This verse encapsulates one such moment for Joseph.

This narrative’s watchword of ra’ah, evil, doesn’t first appear in this verse. Earlier, it describes the report Joseph gives to his father, Jacob, about his brothers; it also characterizes the animal Joseph’s brothers later claim mauled him when they lie to Jacob. It then lingers further on in the narrative, when the brothers are fearful that Joseph will revisit ra’ah upon them after Jacob’s death. But here, Joseph wrestles with the possible ra’ah in front of him, and emerges unwilling to sin before God, to cause damage to a relationship, or to act counter to his values. We don’t know what leads to his new perspective. Up until now, Joseph has seemed primarily focused on his own well-being and gratification. What prompts this awakening? More importantly, we know he remains on this path, rebuffing Potiphar’s wife’s advances repeatedly in the days to come.

Through his decision, Joseph brings himself closer to the moniker of tzadik, righteous one, assigned him by the rabbis. May we each choose wisely when these moments emerge in our lives, and then continue to “turn away from evil, and do good,” living in integrity with our choices.

Rabbi Shlomo Seidenfeld
Aish Hatorah JMI, COO Harkham-GAON Academy

Faith is tested by both pain and power. In fact, it is only in the company of those two realities that anyone can know with certainty just how real their faith is. I often wonder if my “unconditional faith” is in fact, conditional. Would it survive the traumas that so many Jews have experienced throughout history? And conversely, would it be compromised by my ascension to a position of power? 

Joseph experienced peaks and valleys in his life and yet neither state estranged him from the well of his faith. 

In the beginning, his life seemed charmed, with a father who showered him with love and divine dreams that seem to crown him as a future leader. Then the bottom fell out! His own brothers sold him into dehumanizing slavery. His own brothers! I can only imagine the voices in his head as he was taken to Egypt. Betrayed by his own family and seemingly abandoned by God, those voices could have easily commandeered his faith.

Yet, the Torah tells us that he entered the house of his Egyptian master with a faith that was unshaken. Impressive, but would his faith also survive power?

Enter Potiphar. Despite being given unparalleled power in his master’s household and also being subjected to daily seductions from his master’s wife, Joseph remained faithful to God and uncompromising in his morality and humility. Joseph’s faith, like his coat, was multicolored and brilliant.

May Joseph’s life-energizing faith reassure us and inspire us! 

Rabbi Jackie Redner
Vista Del Mar Child and Family Services

With his refusing the advances of Potiphar’s wife, we understand that Joseph has changed, and he has changed profoundly. He is no longer the child who doesn’t understand the implications of his behavior. The mortal desires of flesh and blood do not define him, nor do the mortal fears of punishment drive him. 

We understand now that Joseph has become a man of conscience — a person who navigates the tensions of human life through an abiding awareness and connection to the presence of God, and through a loyalty to that presence. 

The children of Israel are not yet in Egypt, nor have we crossed the sea. Yet, our ancestor Joseph already is teaching us what it means to be a Jew at its essence. It is conscience that eventually humbles the big and little barbarian in each of us, and allows a true human being to emerge. 

Salvador Litvak

Joseph tells Potiphar’s wife he will not have sex with her because it is a great evil and a sin against God. Wouldn’t it have made more sense for him to say, “How can I commit this great evil against Potiphar?” After all, he arrived in Egypt as a slave and now he’s chief of staff to one of the most powerful men in the land. Sleeping with his wife would certainly be ungrateful, but why is it a sin against God?

Rashi points out that adultery was prohibited by God after the flood — one of the Noahide laws given to all humans. But this raises the same question: Why does God care with whom we engage in sex?

Perhaps because we are entrusted with the incredible responsibility to protect God’s honor in our little corner of the world. When the Soul of the Universe places a bit of God’s infinite energy into one of us, God hopes it will be for the good. Yes, hopes. God places good and evil before us and hopes we will do the right thing because he will be diminished if we don’t.

How could an infinitely perfect being be diminished by our lowly actions? Because God grants us this power. God even tells us we can give him pleasure or anger, the ultimate humility for one so far beyond us. And because God is personally invested in us, he will strengthen us in fighting our temptations if we just remember to ask.