The Rise and Fall and Rise of Joseph

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayeishev, the Torah introduces the character of Joseph–the gifted and charismatic son of Jacob.

As the eldest of Jacob’s two sons born to his beloved wife Rachel, Joseph soon emerges as his father’s favorite child. The preferential treatment of Joseph is not at all appreciated by his brothers, who resent him deeply to the point where they actually scheme to kill him. Alas, Joseph’s charisma and special talents are the very factors that lead to Joseph’s rise, decline and rise, throughout his life.

Saved from death and sold to Egypt, Joseph finds himself as a lowly slave in the house of Potiphar. The talented Joseph seems to have the Midas touch, and everything he attends to succeeds beyond any normal measure. His Egyptian master, Potiphar, is convinced that G-d is with Joseph and that the Egyptian’s home is blessed on account of the Hebrew slave (Genesis 39:3). So successful is Joseph,that Potiphar leaves all that he has in Joseph’s trusted hands (Genesis 39:4).

Suddenly, in Genesis 39:6, almost as a non sequitur, scripture relates, וַיְהִי יוֹסֵף יְפֵה תֹאַר וִיפֵה מַרְאֶה, Now Joseph was handsome of form and handsome of appearance.

Rashi explains that the reason for this out-of-context description of Joseph, is that Joseph’s comeliness is to play an important role in the evolving narrative.

Says Rashi, once Joseph saw himself in a position of authority, he began to eat and drink and curl his hair. As a result of this audacious behavior, the Holy One, Blessed be He, said to Himself, “Your father [Jacob] is mourning [thinking that you are dead!] and you curl your hair? I will provoke the ‘bear’ against you!” Immediately thereupon, his master’s wife [Mrs. Potiphar] cast her eyes on him.

The Da’at Sofrim suggests that the period of tranquility that Joseph experienced in Potiphar’s house did not last long. Indeed, Joseph was soon beset with pain and suffering. There are those who conclude that Joseph’s suffering was intended to cleanse him from the sins that he had committed against his brothers. Others suggest that these were Divine tests, like the trials of the Patriarchs.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the story of Joseph are the Torah’s realistic reflections on life. In real life, those who face challenges never know whether the challenges they face are punishments for something they have done, or tests intended to elevate them to a higher level of perfection. The inability to know the actual answer to this question is often what motivates people to try harder, strive further and achieve more.

Did Joseph really become thoroughly enamored with Egyptian culture and so full of hubris due to his success? Did he forgot his origins and try to repress the fact that his father, believing that Joseph was dead, was home crying over him? If that is the case, then Joseph truly deserved these painful experiences. On the other hand, if Joseph was essentially alone, without any guidance or direction, abandoned by his father and brothers, why should he not try a different path and explore the possibility of becoming a successful Egyptian, rather than remain a lowly Jewish slave boy?

The Torah is particularly perceptive when it comes to fathoming reality. In Genesis 39:7, Mrs. Potiphar makes unwelcome advances at Joseph, which Joseph repels. The verse states, וַיְהִי אַחַר הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה, וַתִּשָּׂא אֵשֶׁת אֲדֹנָיו אֶת עֵינֶיהָ אֶל יוֹסֵף, וַתֹּאמֶר שִׁכְבָה עִמִּי, After these things, the master’s wife cast her eyes upon Joseph and she said; “Lie with me.”

Rashi points out that the expression, אַחַר הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה, after these things, signifies a short lapse of time and that the new event [Mrs. Potiphar’s desire for Joseph] is directly related to the preceding event. Joseph’s preoccupation with his own looks results in the unwanted advances of Mrs. Potiphar. Rashi’s midrashic interpretation explains that Joseph’s overconfidence and Mrs. Potiphar’s seductions were a direct result of Joseph’s vain reaction to his success in his new environment.

A particularly insightful observation is made by the Malbim who suggests that Mrs. Potiphar was attracted to Joseph only “after these things.” Surely Mrs. Potiphar noticed how handsome and exceptionally talented Joseph was. But, it was Joseph’s dramatic rise to power in her husband’s house that made Joseph especially appealing. Says the Malbim, Mrs. Potiphar would not have at all been attracted to Joseph and would never have dreamt of consorting with a lowly slave, the position he was in before his dramatic rise. Only when Joseph rose to become a person of stature, did the relationship become plausible.

How revealing this observation is. How easy it is for people to rationalize and justify giving in to their base desires. Yesterday, Joseph was a slave boy; today, he is a gifted administrator with the Midas touch, a comely face and fancy hairdo. Yesterday he was beneath my station in life; today, he is more than my equal, he is a “rock star.”

Much of this delusional justification is without merit. But, the temptations and blandishments of life are so great that they often blind one’s eyes and render rational thinking impossible.

The Torah’s description of the rise and fall and rise of Joseph is filled with these magical insights into the secrets of human nature. Focusing on any one of these insights and learning from the mistakes that Joseph and his brothers made, can serve as invaluable life lessons for all.

These profound messages are to be found throughout Torah, which is all the more reason to appreciate the lessons of Torah, to learn and heed them.

The story of Joseph is not a simplistic narrative. It is a profound handbook of life’s lessons and meanings.  

Chanukah postscript: The rise and fall and rise of Joseph is a timely theme at this time of year, when we celebrate Chanukah. The festival of Chanukah similarly represents the rise and fall and rise of the Jewish people. The Syrian Greeks who attempted to stifle Jewish observance and ban religious practice, succeeded temporarily to impact on Jewish life and impose their Hellenistic values on a large part of the Jewish community. The Maccabees, however, fought back, defeating the Syrian Greeks and their alien culture, leading to the rededication of the Temple and the re-commitment to Jewish values and religious life.

May you be blessed.

The joyous festival of Chanukah begins Sunday night, December 6th, 2015, and continues for eight days, through Monday evening, December 14th, 2015.

Wishing you all a very Happy Chanukah!