Joseph and Potiphar's Wife: A Study of Moral Ambivalence

Vayeishev, Genesis 37:1−40:23

D'Var Torah By: Peter J. Rubinstein

The portion Vayeishev contains astounding examples of bad behavior: Joseph maligns and humiliates his brothers; they, in turn, respond by selling Joseph to the Ishmaelites; Judah and Tamar become involved in a charade of dismal consequences; and, of course, Joseph, once in Egypt, is besought by Potiphar's wife to "lie with me." (Genesis 39:7) The midrash has a special fascination with Joseph's decision to rebuff the advances of the nameless wife of Potiphar. Our forebears wondered: What was it that kept Joseph from dallying with the wife of his master? What prevented Joseph from succumbing to seduction?

Multiple explanations for Joseph's refusal are offered: Joseph yearned for his father Jacob's high regard and feared tarnishing himself. He was afraid of Potiphar and wanted to stay pure before God. But the Torah gives us Joseph's own explanation in his response to his master's wife: "He [Potiphar] wields no more authority in this house than I, and he has withheld nothing from me except yourself, since you are his wife. How then could I do this most wicked thing and sin before God?" (Genesis 39:9) Thus Joseph, with due allegiance to his boss and master, recoils from the seductive invitation.

But what, we might ask, would have been Joseph's response if Potiphar had not been so gracious to him? Would Joseph then have felt no scruples in becoming involved with Potiphar's wife and thus have sinned before God?

Joseph's motivating rationale is both resonant and troubling. He connects his moral attitude toward adultery with his feelings about Potiphar. Since Potiphar has been good to him, he will not succumb to his wife. But if Potiphar had not been kind, could we infer that Joseph would have become sexually involved with this married woman?

Perhaps this episode is intended to raise typical ethical ruminations and put us all on notice. While we understand that much of life is lived between absolute right and absolute wrong, we nevertheless need to be alert to the erosion of ethics when we begin to justify conduct that we suspect or know to be wrong. The slippery ethical slope begins with small transgressions-a little "justified" lie, a small bit of gossip, missing a class or taking a sick day when we are not ill. We know that we have stepped on the slippery slope of ethical reflection when but becomes part of our moral justification: I know I shouldn't but he/she deserved it; but the class was boring; but my parents are mean; but my supervisor is incompetent; but that's the way things are.

Once conditions become part of moral decisions, we have compromised the clear "You shall..." and "You shall not..." mandates of our commandments. Since we know that in his youth, Joseph was prone to bad behavior, we can assume that he realized he was hedging when he refused Potiphar's wife on the basis of his allegiance to her husband, but at least in this case, Joseph behaved correctly. How much better off Joseph might have been by answering "lie with me" with "I will not. It is a sin before God!"

We need not resort to justification for our moral behavior when we respond resolutely to the Torah's guidance on right and wrong. If only we could always do better than Joseph did!

For Further Reading:

Whatever Became of Sin? Karl Menninger, New York: Hawthorn Books, Inc., 1974. This work is also available on tape.

Rabbi Peter J. Rubinstein is Rabbi Emeritus of Central Synagogue in New York, NY.

His Father's Face

Daver Acher By: Tirza Arad

Every year, Jewish parents face the so-called December Dilemma, namely, how they can help their children withstand the temptations and omnipresent attraction of the Christmas season while making sure that they do not feel left out. The problem of living in two cultures challenges us today, just as it has challenged our people throughout our history. Jews have always been fascinated by lifestyles not their own, and our dilemma has been how much of them we can embrace before we lose our identity and commitment as Jews. The Maccabees faced that very same challenge when they fought the battle for Judaism in 168 b.c.e. against the adoption of Greek culture and customs. In this week's portion, Vayeshev, Joseph is also confronted with this challenge. We follow Joseph in his development from a talebearing (Genesis 37:2) and arrogant teenager to an adult who struggles to remember the lessons of his father.

Nechama Leibowitz points out that as Joseph advanced in Potiphar's household, his life became easier. Themidrash tells us that he began to pamper himself with food and drink and curl his hair. According to this account, Joseph was beginning to love the Egyptian lifestyle, was starting to assimilate, and was moving farther away from his roots. Thus when he found himself alone with Potiphar's wife (Genesis 39:11), whose advances he had withstood day after day (Genesis 39:10), he weakened and faced an acute moral crisis.

But then, our sages tell us, Joseph suddenly saw in front of him the image of his father, Jacob, and he was saved from temptation. According to Nechama Leibowitz, he was saved by the fact that he still cherished the memories of the traditions that his father had handed down to him.

Therefore, Parashat Vayeishev elicits the following questions: How do we make sure that our children will remember the Jewish lessons and traditions of their childhood, especially during this season? Will your children see your image when they are confronted with moral dilemmas and the temptation to assimilate? In order for those lessons to withstand the test of time, parents must teach our faith and traditions to their children in an uncompromising and positive way. Happy Chanukah!

At the time of this writing in 2000, Tirza Arad was the Director of Education at Rodef Sholom Congregation in New York City.

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: