The center of the Torah’s examination of the character of Yosef HaTzaddik occurs while Yosef is working for Potiphar, chief executioner of Egypt, with Potiphar’s wife attempting to seduce him again and again (39:7, 39:12). The Pasuk makes it clear that Yosef never gives in to temptation, but finally matters come to a head. One day, when there is no one in the house, she attempts one more time, but is far more physically forceful about it. When he runs off and leaves his coat in her hand, she has all the proof she needs to accuse him of attempted rape. Clearly, if she cannot manipulate Yosef the way she wants, she will see him in prison – or on the executioner’s block. It is possible that Potiphar does not fully believe his wife’s story, which would explain why he spares Yosef’s life, but this does not stop him from allowing his former loyal servant to languish in prison for many years.
The question that we must consider, after having seen all the complicated and difficult tests that the earlier characters in Bereishit endured, is what the nature of this, one of Yosef’s major tests, could be. Michael Benson, a former history teacher at TABC, pointed out to me that the word “Vayema’ein,” “and he refused” (39:8), has the famous Shalshelet “trop” sign above it, a sign whose long and drawn out sound indicates that though he does refuse, Yosef hesitates ( similar to the Shalshelet that appears above the word “Vayitmahmah” in Breishit 19:16) before doing so. If that is the case, then we must ask: why does he hesitate? Yosef has refused temptation in other forms numerous times before – he faithfully ran Potiphar’s household and did not steal or betray him in any way. Perhaps Yosef’s conscience has weakened with the repeated assaults on it, eventually coming to a point where he is actually tempted and has to work to resist. This is very unlike the test with which the Nachash tempted Chavah in Gan Eden: while the snake appears to have had one attempt in which to sink or swim, Yosef is subjected to a constant war on his morality, hammering again and again at his scruples.
The impact of this is obvious to anyone who has been in the same situation as Yosef – any human since the time of the Eitz Hadaat. When one is faced with a clearly wrong but tempting choice and refusing once is not enough, the Yetzer Hara goes to work, justifying and wearing away at the conscience – the proverbial little devil on the shoulder. While the resilience of man’s moral sense may wither in the face of such an assault, the Yetzer Hara never tires of his war. Every refusal is but a single skirmish in a battle that will go one forever, every moment of every day.
This brings to mind a story of the Chafetz Chaim. Upon awaking one morning, he was tempted to remain in his warm and comfortable bed rather than face the cold and difficult day, beginning with Shacharit, that he had ahead of him. Faced with this temptation, he spoke to his Yetzer Hara: “If you, who have been up early and doing your job with zeal and enthusiasm since the earliest days of the world, can be awake in the morning to fight me, than I can certainly get out of bed to do my job with at least as much energy.” With this inspiration, he began his day.
Yosef faced a different battle than Chavah, in more ways than one. It is possible that Chavah, had she resisted that first time, would have mentioned her experience to her husband who, more familiar with the animal world and Hashem’s rule regarding the Eitz Hadaat, would have either warned her away from the spot or taken care of business himself, so to speak. Chavah’s battle was straightforward: she was lied to, manipulated, and deceived, all in one stroke. Yosef’s battle was beyond anyone else’s ability to help him, as he could not have told Potiphar of his wife’s attempts, nor could he have switched jobs to avoid the problem. Moreover, he was clearly dealing with a powerful personality who could manipulate events (and people) to her pleasure, and who would not take one “no” as a final answer. So Yosef had to deal with his own war against his sense of morality as well as her repeated advances and assurances that there was nothing wrong with it to begin with.
Yosef, under constant assault from all sides at all times, knew that he was about to break. So he threw caution to the winds and ran, even though he probably knew what would happen. Since facing the problem head-on had not accomplished much, he decided to take the riskier approach, and, in the short term, was harmed by that decision. But we must always notice Hashem’s plan in such things: in testing the mettle of Yosef in such a manner, he learned that he would not take advantage of a position of power to abuse others (such as his brothers) when the roles would be reversed later on. This temptation served a vital purpose here, as Yosef discovered the power of his moral strength and his dedication to doing the right thing – a lesson we can all learn for when the temptations and tests of our own lives seem about to overwhelm us.
It’s No Contest
by Jesse Dunietz
In the middle of Parshat Vayeishev, Yehuda has an interesting series of encounters with a woman named Tamar. Yehuda fails to marry off his third son Sheilah to her, which he earlier promised to do to carry on the name of his first two sons (each of whom married Tamar, but then died childless). Tamar therefore takes matters into her own hands: disguised as a prostitute, she attracts Yehuda to impregnate her himself. Later, as she is preparing to be killed for harlotry, Tamar indirectly reveals that it was with Yehuda that she conceived, prompting him to confess immediately and vindicate her.
The words Yehuda uses to assume responsibility and stop the execution – “Tzadekah Mimeni” (38:26) – are surprisingly ambiguous. The simple Pshat seems to be, “She is more righteous than me.” Indeed, Ramban, Rashbam, Sforno, and Or HaChaim all interpret it this way, explaining that Yehuda was “more” at fault for one reason or another. Ramban, for example, writes that he should have given Sheilah to Tamar, while Or HaChaim points out that he slept with a woman he thought was a Nochriah, which violated a decree of that generation’s courts. The “trop” (cantillation notes) also fit well with these Mefarshim: the word “Vayomer” immediately before our phrase has a Pashta, a stronger note, while Tzadekah has a Munach, a weaker note that leads in to the stronger Zakef-Katon on Mimeni. This seems to side with the interpretation that Yehuda’s two words are a single cohesive phrase. Even Siftei Chachamim, commenting on Rashi (who, as we shall see, disagrees with this interpretation), notes that this is the simplest way to read the verse – as an expression of Tamar’s comparative righteousness and Yehuda’s relative guilt.
Many of the more traditional Mefarshim, however, put an entirely different spin on these words. Onkelos translates, “She is innocent – she is pregnant from me!” He treats the words Tzadekah and Mimeni as two separate statements, one an affirmation of Tamar’s virtue and the other an exclamation of Yehuda’s own involvement in the case. This is also the interpretation of Rashi, quoting Chazal, and of Targum Yonatan. These commentators deliberately avoid the more obvious reading that the aforementioned Mefarshim endorse; in fact, Siftei Chachamim believes that the viability of that explanation was what prompted Rashi to comment at all on these words. But if it seemed so compelling to the later commentators, why were Chazal and those who follow their approach so averse to this simple Pshat? Why, according to them, can Yehuda not just mean that he was more to blame than Tamar?
Siftei Chachamim itself provides some explanation of this. To explain why Rashi chose the interpretation he did, Siftei Chachamim asks rhetorically, “What difference would it make here if she was more righteous or not?” Yehuda’s guilt in comparison to Tamar’s, claims Siftei Chachamim, is just not relevant to the capital case at hand. This answer, though intuitively appealing, still leaves the question of why it is irrelevant. Tamar does not live in a vacuum; why would Yehuda’s role in the whole affair not affect her?
The answer to this question may seem obvious for the scenario in question – a court case – but it is not always so obvious in its application to everyday life. In a court case, we intuitively understand that no one is put on trial for being guiltier than anyone else. A defendant is tried on the basis of whether or not he personally committed an act worthy of punishment, and the crimes or virtues of others are totally irrelevant. This is why Chazal, Onkelos, and their followers felt compelled to avoid the simple understanding of the Pasuk – they found it inconceivable that Yehuda’s defense is simply a statement of relative guilt and innocence. Rather, it must be a statement that actually nullifies the charges against Tamar, one which expresses her innocence and the reason behind it. (Clearly, identifying exactly how this reason of “Mimeni” answers the charges depends on understanding what those charges are, which is beyond the scope of our discussion.) A trial can only deal with objective evidence and arguments.
But it would be a grave mistake to limit this principle to the justice system. No person in life can judge his peers or himself in comparison to others. Judaism does not accept the excuse of being “better than the next man,” nor does it recognize the “failing” of being comparatively less worthy. We are not criticized for not being like Avraham or Moshe Rabbeinu, as Reb Zusha taught in the famous story, but we are also not free from responsibility just by being more virtuous than our neighbors. The only standard is what we personally are capable of accomplishing, and that, as Chazal and Rashi imply, is the true measure of righteousness.
by Yitzchok Richmond
The second Pasuk in Vayeishev states that Yosef was seventeen years old. It seems a bit odd for the Torah to randomly point out that Yosef was seventeen. What is the Torah trying to teach us?
Rav Yechiel Meir from Osterovtzah suggests an interpretation. At the end of Parshat Toldot, Rashi on 28:9 calculates that Yaakov must have studied at Yeshivat Sheim VaEiver for fourteen years on his way to Lavan’s house. However, this seems odd in light of 25:27, which states: “VeYaakov Ish Tam Yosheiv Ohalim.” Rashi points out there that Yaakov learned at Yeshivat Sheim VaEiver. If Yaakov already learned for a while at Yeshivat Sheim VaEiver before he ran away, why did he feel that he must make a fourteen-year pit stop to learn there again for an extended period of time before continuing to Charan to find a wife?
Rav Yechiel Meir answers wonderfully. When Yaakov learned in Yeshivat Sheim VaEiver before he ran away, that was to learn how to act towards Jews and how to live in a Jewish environment. However, when Yaakov was going to Charan he needed to learn how to interact with a foreign place, with Nochri society. Furthermore, Yaakov foresaw with Ruach HaKodesh that not only he would be in a Nochri environment, so would Yosef. Therefore, over the course of fourteen years, Yaakov taught Yosef all that he learned in the fourteen years in Yeshivat Sheim VaEiver.
As Darchei Moshe points out in his commentary on Tur Orach Chaim, a father should start to teach his son Torah when his son is three years old. Applying this to the case of Yosef, we see that if Yaakov started to teach Yosef when Yosef was three, and if he then taught him for fourteen years, the total is seventeen, which was Yosef’s age at the time he was sold into slavery.
A Dreamy Omen
by Tzvi Zuckier
When Yosef proudly told his brothers about his first dream of superiority, they were not pleased. As the Pasuk records, “Vayomeru Lo Echav, ‘Hamaloch Timloch Aleinu? Im Mashol Timshol Banu?’ Voyosifu Od Sino Oto Al Chalomotav VeAl Devarav,” “And his brothers said to him, ‘Will you really reign over us? Will you indeed dominate us?’ And they hated him still more because of his dreams and because of his words” (37:8). Why did the brothers use both the phrases “will you really reign over us” and “will you indeed dominate us”? Why could one phrase not suffice?
Dov Furer in his book Torah Treasures quotes Rav Yitzchak Zev Soloveitchik, who offers a most satisfying answer. The Gemara in Berachot (55b) states that dreams are fulfilled in the way that the interpreter believes they will be. Because Yosef’s brothers predicted for Yosef’s “Meluchah” (kingship) and “Memshalah” (domination) over them, this is eventually what occurred. “Meluchah” implies the consent of those who are serving the ruler, while “Memshalah” is defined as absolute dominion. The Memshalah aspect of the brothers’ interpretation of the dream occurred when the brothers came to Egypt and were compelled to bow down to Yosef. Later (Bereishit 50:18), when Yaakov died, the brothers came and said that they would willingly be Yosef’s servants, fulfilling the Meluchah part of the dream. Both phrases are required because each one is distinct; they foreshadow two different occurrences.
What was Rav Soloveitchik’s precedent for this wonderful answer? Maybe it can be found in the Haamak Davar comments to our Pasuk (recall that the author of the Haamek Davar, Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, was the great grandfather of Rav Yitzchak Zev Soloveitchik). The Haamek Davar explains that Meluchah refers to rule by consent and Memshalah refers to rule even without the consent of those who are ruled. He explains that the brothers interpreted part of the dream as indicating Yosef’s future Meluchah. This supports Rav Soleveitchik, as the Netziv indicates that the brothers did indeed interpret the dreams in a manner that impacted on future events.
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