Vayeshev: The evil wife

All the wrong reasons.

Rabbi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg,

Rabbi Dr. D. Ginzberg
Rabbi Dr. D. Ginzberg

Towards the end of the portion of Vayeishev, Yosef (Joseph) ’s situation could not be direr, as he is discarded by his brothers and sold into slavery. However, he lands a “cushy” job in Egypt, and, as the Torah describes, his boss Potiphar seemed quite pleased with his new employee. After some time, Potiphar appoints Yosef to be head over the household, and prosperity followed. The Torah describes the apogee of this entire business relationship (Bereishit 39:5-6): 

“Now it came to pass that since he had appointed him over his house and over all that he had, the Lord blessed the house of the Egyptian for Joseph's sake, and the blessing of the Lord was in all that he had, in the house and in the field. So he left all that he had in Joseph's hand, and he knew nothing about what was with him except the bread that he ate; and Joseph had handsome features and a beautiful complexion”

In the second verse, we see a seemingly extraneous element to the theme of Yosef’s success, the description of Yosef’s physical traits. Why do we need to know about his looks?

Potiphar’s wife now enters the scene, and drama unfolds (ibid 7):

“Now it came to pass after these events that his master's wife lifted up her eyes to Joseph, and she said, "Lie with me."”
Yosef refuses (ibid 8-9):

“But he refused, and he said to his master's wife, "Behold, with me my master knows nothing about anything in the house, and all he has he has given into my hand. In this house, there is no one greater than I, and he has not withheld anything from me except you, insofar as you are his wife. Now how can I commit this great evil, and sin against God?"”

Was she persuaded? The Torah never records a response; rather, she persists, continuing to try and seduce Yosef. Finally, seeing no daylight , she frames Yosef as the instigator of this potential adultery. Once Potiphar finds out, he sends Yosef to prison. The story then picks up with Yosef’s time in prison and subsequent interpretation of dreams. 

It would appear that with his descent to prison, the story of Potiphar’s wife would have come to an end. Yet there is a Midrash that seems to want to keep her in the picture. The story is that she approaches Yosef and says she will make him suffer. Yosef responds (each subsequent retort will be a quote from Tehillim) that God does justice to those who torment. She threatens to reduce his work and wages, to which he responds that God gives bread to the starving. She threatens to chain him; he replies that God frees those who are imprisoned. She warns him she will cause him to stoop; no problem, God straightens out those who are bent over. She terrorizes him with promises of blindness; Yosef’s response is that God opens up the eyes of the blind. Finally, she took a metal cord and forced it under his neck, to get Yosef to just look at her. Even with this technique, Yosef refuses.

What is this Midrash coming to teach us? The Torah does not give any indication of anything contained in this Midrash, and it would be hard pressed to take this literally. Sure, Potiphar’s wife was trying to engage in sexual impropriety, and her reaction to being rejected was terrible. However, the Midrash is recasting her in a much different light, a vindictive angry woman trying to reek vengeance of a sort on Yosef. 

When a Midrash like this is introduced, we are being directed to a deeper analysis of the various people involved. The Midrash then is telling us that prior to exiting the story of Potiphar and his wife, it is imperative we study her just a little more. 

Let’s first understand the attraction Potiphar’s wife had towards Yosef. It is tempting to see this as “mere” lust on the part of Potiphar’s wife. However, the verses describing Yosef’s rise in Potiphar’s house allude to something beyond the flesh. Yosef came to Potiphar’s house with nothing. He quickly exhibited a Midas touch of sorts, bringing greater fortune to the household. He was a rising star. And, he was handsome as well. The Torah’s appendage of Yosef’s appearance to the verse could be giving us a unique viewpoint of Yosef: we are seeing Yosef through the eyes of Potiphar’s wife. She was attracted to the qualities of success, power, good looks, and Yosef had these. 

Yosef’s initial rejection of Potiphar was based on a basic argument. The first was the clear violation of trust; how could Yosef commit such an action with all Potiphar has done for him? The commentators note that Yosef was also pointing out how this would be a violation of one of the Seven Noahide Laws. In other words, this action would be a serious breach in morals.

Her lack of an answer could imply an unwillingness to accept such a possibility of rejection. Why was she so resistant to Yosef’s refusal? As noted above, Yosef has qualities that made him desirous to her. She saw in Yosef the ideal person, based on her worldview. Success came to him with ease. He earned praise from others. He was handsome. For someone with these traits to abide by a moral code was a shock to her entire outlook. She refused to accept the possibility that someone who possessed the traits she thought so important would cite a higher moral standard in refusing her. She thus persisted, and when she saw he was wed to his beliefs, she eventually attempted to destroy him.

A simple reading of the Midrash seems to present Yosef as deflecting each attack using God as the defense. Whatever you do to me, God can reverse. What would we be learning then, and why list every specific attack by Potiphar’s wife? It is possible, then, that the Midrash is picking up on the above clash of value systems. The first threat she makes is a general idea of making Yosef suffer. Someone like Yosef presents as a threat to her entire worldview. She saw concepts like fame and fortune, good looks and popularity, as that which defined an individual’s greatness. Naturally, an outsized view of the self emerges, and such a person would live their lives by their own moral compass. Submitting one’s self to an objective moral code would be laughable. And yet here was Yosef, not interested at all in her advances. It was inconceivable to her that someone like Yosef be “blessed” with all of his traits and yet submit to a higher authority.

She proceeds to threaten him with specifics. She would take away his wealth, remove his freedom, deform him. Why should Yosef be privileged to have these wonderful traits? Each time, Yosef responds by accentuating that God can reverse the action. Yosef wasn’t just demonstrating how powerful God is. Rather, he was expressing how unimportant these various attacks were to him. If indeed he lost his ability to see, God could always reverse course. But it would not change who he was. The loss of any one of these superficial traits or capabilities would have no effect on his adherence to God’s will.

The essence of the person can be found in his mind, and its use is to always be directed to God. To Yosef, any one of the above are beneficial when they work to assist him in his service to God. But to not have one would not mean a critical loss in who he was as a person. All the externals could be taken away, and God can easily return them. None of them defined Yosef. 

The Midrash concludes with an expression of frustration on the part of Potiphar’s wife. What was she hoping to accomplish in having Yosef look at her? It could be she was trying to get Yosef to at least acknowledge some modicum of truth to her perspective. He may disagree with her value system, but couldn’t he at least see some intrinsic value in those features. The answer was clear, as noted in the Midrash.

A Midrash such as this reflects the acute knowledge the Sages had of the psychological makeup of mankind. Often, we see ourselves as evolved “morally”, our values in sync with a more refined standard. In truth, much of society still views the externals as the essence of who we are. Financial success, physical appearance, athletes and actors, many celebrate and adore those whose achievements are the results of accidents in their nature. Judaism seeks out the essential identity of the human, and offers a way of life to maximize it. While the above features can be helpful, they only serve an ancillary role. Potiphar’s wife swooned over a mirage of humanity. Yosef stuck to what truly defines us. 

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