Joseph and Potiphar's Wife: Conscience Over Consequence

Vayeishev, Genesis 37:1−40:23

D'Var Torah By: Neal Katz

Focal Point

  • After a time, his master's [Potiphar's] wife cast her eyes upon Joseph and said, "Lie with me." But he [Joseph] refused. He said to his master's wife, "Look, with me here, my master gives no thought to anything in this house, and all that he owns he has placed in my hands." (Genesis 39:7-8)

D'var Torah

One of the great eternal debates is the motivation for human behavior. For example, are people predisposed to acting in a certain manner because they fear external punishment, or can an internal moral compass be cultivated to guide their actions? As children, we are taught that bad behavior is subject to punishment, and so we correct our actions accordingly to avoid further reprimand. Over time, this fear of consequence directs our actions. However, as we grow older, we tend to move away from the simple fear of external consequence to behaviors that emerge from an internalized set of values—our conscience.

This issue of external versus internal motivation is one of the themes addressed in this week's Torah portion. In Genesis 39, we read about the attempted seduction of Joseph by Potiphar's wife. When Joseph resists the temptation of his master's wife, he explains to her, "Look, with me here, my master gives no thought to anything in this house, and all that he owns he has placed in my hands" (Genesis 39:8). Joseph's reluctance to engage Potiphar's wife in sexual activity seems rooted in Joseph's high degree of personal moral character. He knows that Potiphar trusts him with all of the possessions in the house, including his wife.

While this view suffices for the biblical narrative, the rabbinic Sages offer a midrash on this passage that expands the reasoning behind Joseph's behavior. In B'reishit Rabbah 87:5, they suggest three possible explanations for Joseph's righteous behavior. The first explanation suggests that Joseph declines Potiphar's wife's advances because he remembers Adam, the first human being. Joseph recalls that Adam violated a minorcommandment when he ate the forbidden fruit. Adam's punishment for that transgression was to be banished from the Garden of Eden. If such a punishment could come from a minor sin, surely, Joseph thinks, the punishment that would result from partaking in this major sin, adultery, would be especially grievous. So out of fear of severe divine retribution, Joseph refuses to lay with Potiphar's wife.

The second explanation for Joseph's motivation to refuse the advance is that he reflects on what happened to his brother Reuben when he laid with Bilhah, one of his father's concubines. As we learn in I Chronicles 5:1-2, because of this outrageous act, Reuben was stripped of his birthright, which was then transferred to Joseph. Recalling this incident, Joseph fears he too might lose his birthright for a similar violation.

The third explanation imagines that when Joseph refuses the advance, Potiphar's wife becomes despondent and even offers to kill her husband. Joseph angrily responds to this offer by asking, "Isn't it enough that I would be counted in the assembly of adulterers, that I should [also] be [counted] in the assembly of murderers?" Here, he refuses Potiphar's wife not out of fear of external punishment, but rather because of the shame, the depth of wrong, that would include him in the "assembly of murderers."

This intriguing midrash reveals a progression and lesson in personal behavior. From Adam (a distant relative), to Reuben (Joseph's brother), to Joseph himself, we see that the point of motivation moves ever closer to the self. Yes, Joseph's refusal to lay with Potiphar's wife is the right thing to do. But does Joseph act in this manner because of external consequence or internal conscience? We learn from this midrash that our internal moral compass—the fear of tainting, through reprehensible action, the divine image planted within us—is of a higher nature than the threat of external punishment. Unlike choices that are based on fear of external consequences, our choices that emerge from a set of internalized values can reflect holiness.

In Judaism, we embrace and promote values that lead us toward righteous behavior. Jewish values are not innate; rather they are acquired through study, prayer, and love of Torah. Once we have internalized Jewish values, we may become beacons of righteous action, doing what is good and right in the eyes of God, and thus bringing honor to God's name.

By the Way

  • "Labor to keep alive in your Breast that Little Spark of Celestial fire Called Conscience." (Rule #110 from George Washington, in George Washington and John H. Rhodehamel, George Washington: Writings [New York: Library of America, 1997], p. 10)
  • Move along when the crowd is right
    Stand alone when the crowd is wrong
    I always had the lone wolf ways
    Distilled the instinct to get to gone
    (Lyric selection from "What Was That?" by John Gorka, on the CD The Company You Keep [St. Paul, MN: Red House Records, 2001])

Your Guide

  1. How do George Washington's words reflect on the third midrash about Joseph? What does Washington mean when he says that one must "labor" to keep alive that "little spark" or "conscience"? Does he imply that the spark is always lit or that we must always strive to keep it lit?
  2. What does Gorka suggest about individual motivation in the first two lines of the lyric selection? When should we "move along" with the crowd, and when should we "stand alone"?

Rabbi Neal Katz is the rabbi at Congregation Beth El in Tyler, Texas.

Reference Materials

Vayeishev, Genesis 37:1-40:23 
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 244–260; Revised Edition, pp. 244–262;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 208–232

Originally published: