“The Seduction of Joseph”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayeishev, Joseph is brought down to Egypt and sold by the Ishmaelites to Potiphar, one of Pharaoh’s officers.

G-d is with Joseph, and he becomes extraordinarily successful in the house of his Egyptian master. Soon after Joseph’s arrival, he is appointed to oversee Potiphar’s house. The house is blessed on account of Joseph, and Joseph eventually rises to the position of master of everything that Potiphar has in both house and field.

At this point, scripture tells us (Genesis 39:6): “Vay’hee Yosef y’fay toh’ar, vey’fay mar’eh,” Joseph was both handsome of form and handsome of appearance. Rashi questions the appropriateness of this comment in the present context. Rashi concludes that Joseph, seeing how successful he was professionally, began to eat and drink and curl his hair so that he would look comely. G-d says, “Your father is mourning, and you curl your hair! I will incite the bear [Potiphar’s wife] against you.”

The very next verse tells us that Potiphar’s wife casts her eyes upon Joseph, demanding that he lie with her. Joseph adamantly refuses, telling her that Potiphar has placed everything in his trust, and that he cannot perpetrate this great evil and sin against G-d.

But, if nothing, Mrs. Potiphar is persistent, and continues to harass Joseph day after day. Nevertheless, he would not listen to her pleas to lie beside her, or even to be with her.

One day, when the house was empty, Joseph entered to do his work. Mrs. Potiphar caught hold of Joseph’s garments and demanded, “Lie with me.” Fleeing outside, Joseph leaves his garment in Mrs. Potiphar’s hand.

When Mrs. Potiphar saw that Joseph had left his garment in her hand and fled, rejecting her overtures, she calls out to all the people of the household, “Joseph, the Hebrew man, tried to rape me.” She explains that only when she gave out a great cry did he run away. The proof of Joseph’s perfidy is that he left his garment in her hand.

When Potiphar hears his wife’s story, he throws Joseph into the dungeon where the king’s prisoners were held.

The attempted seduction of Joseph is not at all a pretty story. As Rashi notes, it was most likely Joseph’s preoccupation with his appearance and his hair that caused Mrs. Potiphar to be attracted to him. But it was not only that. It was Joseph’s narcissism and complete indifference to anyone else’s sorrow and pain, allowing him to forget that his old father was pining for him back home in Canaan, while he was prettying himself with mousse and tonic.

Mrs. Potiphar is not a nice woman, or a happy one. Some commentators suggest that Potiphar was impotent, as indicated by the word “s’ris” (Genesis 39:1), which in addition to courtier also means eunuch. There are even commentators who go so far as to say that Potiphar himself was attracted to Joseph and wanted to sexually molest Joseph, but G-d prevented him from doing so by rendering Potiphar impotent. Others say that it was the angel Gabriel who castrated Potiphar, to prevent him from harming Joseph.

And yet there are commentators who maintain that Mrs. Potiphar was not as wicked as we usually make her out to be. They point to the juxtaposition of the story of Judah and Tamar and the story of Mrs. Potiphar, underscoring that both these women acted for the sake of heaven. Both Tamar and Mrs. Potiphar understood how privileged they would be to bear children who were part of the family of Israel. Nevertheless, the immodesty reflected in the scriptural verse describing Mrs. Potiphar’s aggressiveness (Genesis 39:7): “Va’tee’sah ay’shet ah’doh’nahv et ay’neh’hah el Yosef, va’toh’mer: shich’vah ee’mee,” and the master’s wife cast her eyes upon Joseph, and she said, “Lie with me,” hardly reflects a particularly righteous woman. In contrast to Mrs. Potiphar who speaks brazenly and coarsely, the commentators point to the righteous Ruth who delicately says to Boaz (Ruth 3:9), “Spread your robe over your handmaid.”

Joseph’s trials by Mrs. Potiphar were brutal, and his attempts to resist her overtures were nothing short of heroic. The Talmud in Yoma 35b states that every single day Mrs. Potiphar would endeavor to entice Joseph. The garment (undoubtedly immodest and revealing) she put on for him in the morning, she did not wear in the evening, and those that she put on in the evening, she did not wear in the morning.

The Midrash underscores how difficult it was for Mrs. Potiphar as well. She was literally obsessed with Joseph and would often rave about her handsome manservant to all her girlfriends, who would accuse her of exaggerating. The Midrash states that on one occasion, Mrs. Potiphar invited her Egyptian girlfriends over for a tea party so they could gaze upon Joseph. She gave them each an etrog and a knife with which to peel the fruit. When Joseph entered the room, the women were so enthralled by his beauty, that the knives slipped and cut their hands. Mrs. Potiphar cried out to the women, “This is how you are affected when you see him only for one moment, imagine how I must feel, who must see him all day long!”

While all agree that Joseph did not succumb to Mrs. Potiphar’s enticements, the commentators differ regarding the extent of Joseph’s resistence. Some see the emphatic shalshelet cantillation and the strong punctuation that follows the word (Genesis 39:8), “Vah’y’mah’ayn,” but he [Joseph] refused, as an indication of the absoluteness of his resistence. Others say that this shalshelet cantillation sign, which is long and drawn out, indicates that it took Joseph a very long time to resist Mrs. Potiphar’s overtures.

Some of the commentators note that Joseph attempted to pacify Mrs. Potiphar, trying not to resist her too strongly so that he would not incur the wrath of his master’s wife, who had the power to harm him. The Midrash says that Joseph told Mrs. Potiphar, “I am mortally afraid of my master.” “Then I will kill him,” she said. “Is it not enough that you want to make me into an adulterer?” Joseph responds, “Now you want me to become an accomplice to murder as well!”

There are those who say that despite Mrs. Potiphar’s constant nagging and teasing, Joseph remained steadfast in his resistance, and that when scripture says (Genesis 39:11) that Joseph entered the house to do his “work,” its implication is that Joseph was there to literally do his job and review the various accounts of the household. According to the Ramban, the real reason (Genesis 39:12) that Mrs. Potiphar had his garment in her hand when he fled was on account of Joseph’s refinement. He purposely did not overpower her and tear his garment from her, but rather chose to politely slip out of the garment to elude her while she was grasping it.

Others, however, say that evil inclination overwhelmed Joseph and that he could resist no longer. The rabbis suggest that the “work” that Joseph was preparing to do was hardly the household kind of work. The garment was left in Mrs. Potiphar’s hand, because Joseph had actually begun to disrobe and was fully prepared to yield to his master’s wife to satisfy his own desire. It was only at the last moment that the image of Joseph’s father, Jacob, appeared before him, at which point Joseph loses his desire and escapes by fleeing outside.

In rabbinic literature Joseph is known as “Yosef HaTzaddik,” Joseph the Righteous One, for the superhuman courage and fortitude that it took to resist the overtures of the beautiful and wily Mrs. Potiphar, and to walk away from her.

The Talmud in Yoma 35b states that after death, as people are judged for their earthly actions, it will be Joseph who will prosecute and condemn the wicked, sensual people. The heavenly tribunal will address these people as follows:

Why have you not occupied yourself with the Torah? If he [the accused] answers: I was handsome and good looking and was therefore continually exposed to temptations, they would say to him: Were you perchance more handsome than Joseph? It was told of Joseph the virtuous, that every day the wife of Potiphar endeavored to entice him with words. The garments she put on for him in the morning, she did not wear in the evening, those she had put on in the evening, she did not wear in the morning. She said to him: “Yield to me!” He said: “No.” She said, “I shall have you imprisoned.” He said, “The Lord releases the bound” (Psalm 146:7). She said: “I shall bend your body and torture you so you will not be able to stand.” He replied: “The Lord raises those who are bowed down” (Psalm 146:8). She offered him a thousand talents of silver to make him yield to her, to lie with her, to be near her, but he would not listen to her; not to “lie with her” in this world, not “to be with her” in the World to Come.

It is in this way that Joseph invalidates the excuses of all those who are subject to temptation and seduction because of their comeliness.

In a brilliant essay on parashat Mikeitz, Dr. Yisrael (Shay) Eldad, in his book Hegyonot Mikra pp. 60-68, notes that Joseph never allowed himself to be completely separated from his father’s house. He was led down to Egypt against his will, and still the teachings of his father were on his lips. It was his commitment to the family tradition and to the monotheistic G-d that gave him the strength to resist. That is why, says Eldad, Joseph was never seduced by Mrs. Potiphar, whereas, suggests Eldad, he is not so sure how the rest of us would fare if we were to face such a test. We, says Eldad, always dream about Mrs. Potiphar, attempt to rationalize away the danger by regarding her merely as one of the “seductive expressions” of culture and freedom!

Perhaps that is why, even though there are questions about some of Joseph’s actions, the bottom line is that he resisted and did not yield. That is why he is called unequivocally, “Yosef HaTzaddik,” Joseph the Righteous One.

May you be blessed.