As we have discussed on previous occasions in this forum, Yosef leads a life of ups and downs. This is glaringly obvious in the story of Yosef and Potiphar’s wife.
On entering the Potiphar household, we are told: ויהי ה’ את יוסף – God was with Yosef. A few verses later we find the phrase: ויברך ה’ את בית המצרי בגלל יוסף ויהי ברכת ה’ בכל אשר יש לו בבית ובשדה – God blessed the Egyptian’s house because of Yosef and the blessing of God prevailed over all that was his in the house and in the field. (Bereishit 39: 1-5)
Things seem to be looking good for Yosef. Hashem is with him. The Torah goes out of its way to point this out and even states that the blessing of God extended to Potipharr’s household because of Yosef’s merit.
So why does it all go downhill from here? By the end of this very chapter Yosef finds himself in a prison, a dungeon, where all enemies of the state are to be found. What went wrong?
[We suggested an answer to this question in our shiur several years ago. While we may employ some similar ideas here, we will offer an alternate reading of the episode.]
One of the questions which is discussed by the commentaries is whether Yosef was affected or even tempted by the overtures of Potiphar’s wife. The simple answer to this question is no. The word used by the Torah for Yosef’s refusal to agree to Potiphar’s wife’s demands is ” וימאן“. Rav Ya’akov Zvi Mecklenberg (19C, Germany), in his commentary Ha’ketav Ve’Hakabala, explains that Yosef did not wait to consider why it was correct to turn Potiphar’s wife down but rather stated his outright refusal right away. Only then does he explain why it would be wrong to agree to her request or demands. Malbim, in a similar vein, explains that Yosef was able to overcome his physical desires and state a categorical refusal but his comments suggest that there was an internal conflict which Yosef ultimately resolves.
On the other hand, as we are aware, the “trop” (musical cantillation) on the word “ ” וימאןis a shalshelet, an elongated note, which most commentators understand as denoting hesitation. The Gemara (Sotah 36b) records a dispute between Rav and Sh’muel as to Yosef’s intentions when he originally found himself alone with Potiphar’s wife. According to one opinion it was only the appearance of an image of his father which prevented Yosef from committing a grave sin.
If Yosef was tempted to sin, this may have been caused by his handsome looks which the Torah describes in a previous passuk or his feeling of haughtiness which stemmed from his rise to power in Potiphar’s household. Both of these suggestions are alluded to in the mefarshim on this perek (R’Yosef B’chor Shor and Rashi).
But is this sufficient reason to explain why Yosef seems to be punished? Granted, he found himself in prison due to the lies of Potiphar’s wife and her husband’s willingness to accept this fabrication. But in the realm of Divine providence, this does not seem fair! Even if Yosef did wrestle with his desires, he ultimately does the right thing and adamantly refuses to be coerced into sin. Surely, this reflects great strength of character as the mishna in Avot (4:1) tells us: “Who is mighty? One who conquers his inclination (or desires).”
This question is compounded by the language employed by the Torah towards the end of the chapter:
ויהי ה’ את יוסף, ויט אליו חסד …..אין שר בית הסוהר רואה את כל מאומה בידו באשר ה’ איתו ואשר הוא עושה ה’ מצליח.
Hashem was with Yosef and extended kindness to him… The chief jailer did not supervise anything that was in Yosef’s charge because Hashem was with him and whatever he did Hashem made successful. (Bereishit 39: 21-23)
It is difficult to ignore the similarities between the description of Hashem’s award of assistance to Yosef while he was in the jail and the same form of Divine help described when Yosef was in the Potiphar household. The Torah is clearly providing a parallel between the two situations. Although Yosef may find himself in less privileged surroundings, nevertheless the closeness of God is emphasized in both episodes.
This would suggest that Yosef was not punished, for if that was the case surely Hashem would not have been “with” Yosef as previously.
Radak (commentary to Bereishit 39:7) explains that the events which transpire involving Yosef and Potiphar’s wife was all part of a plan for the good of Yosef’s brothers and his father, as was the sin of Paro’s butler and his dream – all stems from God. Radak adds that we should all learn from Yosef who conquered his inclination and put his trust in God.
These words of Radak force us to reconsider our entire reading of the saga that unfolds between Yosef and his brothers. Yes, much can be explained based on sibling rivalry, parental preferences, lust, ego and other such emotions. But the Torah is not to be read as a novel, much less treated like a soap opera. It is important that as we delve into the story of Yosef we must take a step back and remember that what occurred was and is always part of a Divine plan.
This sentiment is echoed by Yosef himself on revealing his true identity to his brothers as we will discover in a future episode of Parshat Hashavua. Stay tuned…