Posted on December 4, 2015 by David Derin
This week Jews everywhere, around the entire world, will be reading the story of Yosef and the beginnings of the Jewish people’s journey in Egypt. Parshat Va-Yeshev begins with the story of the tension that exists between Joseph and his brothers. This tension escalates when Yaakov gives Yosef a כתנת פסים, typically understood to be some kind of ornamented garment. Between Yaakov’s favoritism and Yosef’s lack of sensitivity towards them, his brothers decide to remove him from the equation. They debate whether or not to kill him, eventually deciding to throw him into a pit and tell their father that Yosef was killed by a wild beast, a plan which ultimately results in his being sold into slavery.
Not only is Yosef sold into slavery, but he finds himself serving Potiphar, the chief steward of Pharaoh. And it is Yosef in this environment upon which we will focus. As a servant in the house of Potiphar, Yosef is able to experience greater comfort than other slaves who are suffering under the burdens of physical labor. And this is where things get interesting. Because he is not a physical laborer, Yosef spends the majority of his time in his master’s home. Over time, אשת פוטיפר (Potiphar’s wife) commands Yosef to “lie” (Bereshit Chapter 39, Verse 7) with her. Here we have an incredibly explicit case of an individual attempting to take advantage of her position of authority. Unfortunately, we are not overly shocked by this story. Throughout history, we can find countless examples of people taking advantage of those who are in subservient positions. This however is not where we will be focusing our efforts. We are going to look at Yosef’s response.
Yosef refuses to give in to the demands of his master’s wife. He goes so far as to ask אשת פוטיפר the following question:
ואיך אעשה הרעה הגדולה הזאת וחטאתי לאלוקים (בראשית לט:ט)
How can I do this most wicked thing, and sin before G-d? (Bereshit Chapter 39, Verse 9; JPS Translation)
Yosef not only adamantly refutes the command (not advance, but explicit command) of his master’s wife, but takes the further step of questioning how she could even think he would sleep with her. Yosef, in some way, turns the table and puts אשת פוטיפר on the defensive. She now needs to ask herself the question: “How could I ask him to such a terrible thing?!?! How could I ask him to forsake what he believes and to take advantage of the trust accorded him by my husband?!?!” Not only does Yosef’s challenge raises questions of being asked to do this “wicked thing”, but he also is very explicit in that by following through with this act, he would be sinning before G-d. There is a source greater than each of us which sets a standard and dictates for everybody proper behavior.
So what? That is what I have been asking myself recently. So what if we have this set of guiding principles for how we act? Why is what Yosef does such a big deal? Why is it relevant to me today?
Yosef refusing his master’s wife is a HUGE deal! As I said earlier, it is all too common a trend in history that somebody with power takes advantage of those they stand above. What Yosef does is the right thing, not the easy thing. In this story, Yosef shows incredible strength. To stand up for what we know is the right thing is not always (if ever) the easy and simple course of action.
I take this story, particularly Yosef’s response, to be a called to action that we all need to follow. With the state of affairs in the world today, we cannot afford to remain silent. We cannot afford to allow those with power to take advantage of others. We cannot afford for society to become shaped by despoilment and corruption. It is the responsibility of each and every one of us to speak up. It falls to us to step up and combat those things we encounter that we know to not be right. If we do not each, individually take responsibility and step up, nobody will.
We need to be the change that we know needs to take place.