Why Be Good When No One Else is Watching? (Vayeshev)

Joseph’s ability to resist the attempted seduction of the wife of his employer, Potiphar, ends up costing him his job. When Potiphar’s wife discovers, to her dismay, that she is unable to win over the handsome young lad in her husband’s employ, she blames him for trying to seduce her, and a furious Potiphar casts his right-hand man into an Egyptian prison. But in the Talmud, Joseph is lauded for “sanctifying the name of heaven in secret” (Sotah 36b), which is how the rabbis interpret his resistance. For the Talmudic rabbis, this scene of seduction becomes a story of sanctification that teaches us why we still should be good even when no one else is watching.

The Talmud’s discussion of Joseph’s confrontation with this married woman appears, rather appropriately, in tractate Sotah, which is about women suspected of adultery. The rabbis quote a verse from Psalms (81:6) in which Jacob’s name is spelled with an extra letter: “He appointed it in Joseph [Yehosef] for a testimony when He went forth against the land of Egypt.” According to the rabbis, Joseph merited to receive the letter Hey—a letter from God’s name, and the same letter added to the names of Abraham and Sarah—on account of his sanctification of God’s name in private when he fled from his master’s wife.

According to the Talmud, Potiphar’s wife had been trying to attract Joseph’s attention for a while: “The clothes she wore in the morning she would not wear in the evening, and the clothes she wore in the evening she would not wear in the morning” (Yoma 35b). But then finally she found her moment. The Torah states that “no one of the household was there inside” (Genesis 39:11) when Potiphar’s wife took hold of Joseph’s garment and insisted that he lie with her. But the Talmud in Sotah (36b) clarifies that Joseph and Potiphar’s wife were not entirely alone, because at the very moment of seduction, Joseph suddenly had a vision in the bedroom window of his father Jacob, who warned him that he was risking his future prospects. His father told him that the names of his brothers were destined to be written on the Ephod – a ceremonial garment worn by the high priest. If Jacob were to succumb, his name would be erased from it. And so Joseph, who may have noticed Potiphar’s wife’s frequent costume changes, was ultimately held back by the thought of a priestly garment.

The introduction of Jacob into the bedroom is a bit surprising. The contemporary biblical scholar James Kugel proposes that the rabbis are offering a midrashic reading of a verse from Jacob’s deathbed blessing to Joseph at the end of Genesis: “His arms were made firm By the hands of the Mighty One of Jacob— There, the shepherd, the rock of Israel” (49:24). The biblical word for shepherd is roeh, a near-homonym for “see.” According to Kugel, the rabbis are reading this verse as signifying that Joseph saw the rock of Israel, namely the icon or image of his father Jacob, who was known as Israel. Joseph maintained his firm resistance on account of this image of his father, who appeared to him in the window.

The contemporary Israeli rabbi and novelist Haim Sabato offers an alternative explanation of Joseph’s resistance based on an old book of biblical commentary by a Moroccan rabbi that he once found in a used bookstore – or so he relates in his autobiographical novel Beshafrir Chevion (untranslated). Sabato writes that Joseph must have grown up in a house without mirrors, since he lived in agrarian Canaan during times of famine and privation. But Potiphar’s wife’s bedroom was surely full of such luxuries. And so perhaps when Joseph entered, he saw his reflection mirrored back clearly at him for the first time. Never having seen himself before, he thought he was looking at his father, whom he very closely resembled, according to Rashi (on Gen. 37:2). The sight of his father in the bedroom—though it was really just his own reflection—was enough to save him from sin.

These are richly imagined explanations for Joseph’s continence, but in the biblical text, Joseph himself explains why he does not sin: “How could I do this most wicked thing and sin before God?” (39:9). Joseph realizes that even if no one else were to ever find out about it, his indiscretion would not go unnoticed, because God is always watching. The guardian of Israel neither sleeps nor slumbers, and so every sin is a sin before God. Indeed, it is even more brazen to sin in private, because it is as if we are denying God’s omnipresence.

The rabbis teach that anyone who transgresses in private is considered as if he is pushing away the feet of the divine presence (Kidushin 31a). They base this claim on a verse from Isaiah (66:1): “So says the Lord: The heaven is My throne, and the earth is My footstool.” God sits in heaven with God’s legs dangling down to earth, and any time we sin, we are bumping up against the divine feet. When we are alone, we are effectively alone with God, and thus we have the greatest possibility for intimacy with God.

Like Joseph, who spent most of his years in Egypt estranged from his father and brothers, all of us go through periods in life when we are more alone than we might wish. But the story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife reminds us that even when we are alone, we carry with us an image of ourselves (the mirrors), the values of our parents (Joseph’s father), and the presence of God (Whose legs dangle in the room). These presences accompany us when we are tempted by sin or tormented by solitude, reminding us that we are never truly alone.

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