“Who is Osenath the wife of Joseph?”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

In this coming week’s parasha, parashat Mikeitz, Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dream and is elevated to be mishne la’melech, second only to the king, Pharaoh. Pharaoh removes his signet from his own hand and places it on Joseph’s. He dresses Joseph in clothes of fine linen, places a gold chain around Joseph’s neck, has him ride in the Royal Chariot number 2 (Air Force 2), and appoints Joseph over all the land of Egypt.

Pharaoh also gives Joseph’s a new name, Zaph’nath Pa’neach, which according to some means interpreter of secrets, and gives him Osenath, the daughter of Potiferah, the Priest of On, as a wife. (Genesis 41, verses 44-46.) According to tradition, Potiferah is really Potifar, Joseph’s former master. The fact that Potifar allowed his daughter to marry Joseph serves as a vindication of Joseph in the eyes of the Egyptians, proving that he had never attempted to rape Potifar’s wife.

But the Potifar that we know had been a “Sar Ha’tabachim” the chief butcher, or chief executioner, or in charge of the kitchens, and Potiferah is the Priest of On? What happened? The Rabbis say, that after Joseph was imprisoned, Potifar suffered terrible economic reversals, and the only way he could earn a living was by serving as a clergyman. What a comedown!

There is, however, an intriguing sidebar to the story of Mrs. Potifar and Osenath, which is brought down in the Midrash. According to the Midrash, Mrs. Potifar was persistent in her pursuit to seduce Joseph because she had seen through astrology that she would be the ancestress of Joseph’s children. She could not know that it would be through her daughter Osenath, rather than herself.

The Rabbis of the Midrash were apparently left terribly unsettled by the story of the rape of Dina by Shechem, which was related in Parashat Va’Yishlach. Yes, it is true that Simeon and Levi avenged the rape by massacring all of the men of Shechem. But whatever became of Dina?

One Midrash says that Simeon eventually married Dina to spare her dignity. But another Midrash relates that Dina became pregnant in the assault by Shechem, and bore a female child. Although the child’s grandfather, Jacob, tried to protect the child, the sons would not tolerate the presence of this child in their home. The sons eventually prevailed on Jacob to cast the child out of their house. Jacob, in despair, made the child an amulet engraved with G-d’s name, in order to indicate that she was the daughter of Dina, the granddaughter of Jacob, the great granddaughter of Abraham. He attached the amulet to a chain which he placed around the child’s neck, took her to the wilderness and placed her under a bush. The Hebrew word for bush is s’neh, hence the name, Osenath. Divine providence eventually brought the child to the house of Potifar, whose wife, being childless, raised the child as her own, and consequently scripture refers to the girl as their daughter.

Different Midrashim say that Joseph actually encountered Osenath in Potifar’s home, but not knowing her origins paid no attention to her. According to the Midrash, after Mrs. Potifar accuses Joseph of attempting to violate her, Osenath came on her own initiative to her adoptive father and convinced him of Joseph’s innocence. That is perhaps why it says in Chapter 39, verse 19, “Va’yee’char apo,” that Potifar was angry.

When Jacob blesses Joseph at the end of his life, (Chapter 49, verse 22,) Jacob says of Joseph, “Ba’not tza’ada aley shure.” This literally means that the women climbed the walls to see Joseph as he passed by, because he was so dashing and handsome. Elaborating on this, the Midrash says that as Joseph would pass in his chariot, the women would throw precious things at him from atop the wall to gain his attention. Since Osenath had nothing else, she threw her amulet. When Joseph opened the amulet, he realized that she was Jacob’s granddaughter, and he married her.

This series of fascinating and complex Midrashim come, I believe, to explain two things. First they come to vindicate Dina, that despite the terrible tragedy that she experienced, she manages to bear a child who becomes the wife of Joseph, and the progenitor of two tribes of Israel, Ephraim and Menashe. It may be a bittersweet end, but there is some sweetness.

Secondly, perhaps it comes to explain how it is possible that Joseph, the assimilator, who married the daughter of the High Priest of On, manages to raise two committed “Jewish” children, who become two of the 12 tribes of Israel, Ephraim and Menashe. The Midrash in effect is saying that Joseph had much help and support in raising these two special children–that the mother of these two children was none other than the granddaughter of Jacob, and the values that she instilled in her children were the values of Jacob.

It is no surprise then that when old Jacob blesses his grandchildren Ephraim and Menashe in Chapter 48, verse 20, he blesses them saying, B’cha y’varech Yisrael lay’mor: Y’simcha Elokim k’Ephraim v’kh’Menashe.” by you shall Israel bless saying: May G-d make you as Ephraim and Menashe. With these words Jewish parents the world over bless their male children every Friday night. Why, ask the rabbis, of all the noble people of Israel, are Ephraim and Menashe selected to be the paradigms for the blessing bestowed on male children? Some of the commentaries explain that perhaps it is because Ephraim and Menashe were the first Jews to be reared in Galut, in exile. Since exile-galut, would be the majority dwelling place for most Jews throughout Jewish history, they are entirely appropriate role models for the blessing, especially since these two children, Ephraim and Menashe, reared in a fearsome galut remained loyal to Jewish tradition. Says Jacob: “Bless your children that they may be like Ephraim and Menashe.” May all the male Jewish children, and female Jewish children for that matter, who grow up outside of Israel, in face of the blandishments of assimilation and in an alien culture, be like Ephraim and Menashe, be able to resist assimilation and emerge proudly as committed Jews, committed to Jewish life and to Jewish people.

Leave it to the rabbis to grant us such a beautiful conclusion to such a bitter story!

Do you think it is a coincidence that the theme of assimilation and the battle against assimilation in the story of Joseph is almost always read on Chanukah? Happy Chanukah to all.

May you be blessed.