Following Yosef’s sale to Egypt, he faces the daunting challenge of maintaining the values which he acquired in Yaakov’s home while living in an alien environment. The Torah attests to the strong relationship he has with God when he first arrives in Egypt. Throughout Chapter 39, as the Torah describes how God assured Yosef’s successes - first in Potiphar’s house and later in prison - it refers to God by the Tetragrammaton (Shem Havaya). By using God’s more personal name, the Torah implies an intimate relationship between Him and Yosef during this period. By contrast, when Yosef speaks to Potiphar’s wife and to Paroh’s officers in prison, he refers to God by His more universal name, Elokim (39:9), presumably because these Egyptians would not have understood the Tetragrammaton. Interestingly, though, starting when Yosef enters prison, the Tetragrammaton disappears completely from Bereshit (except for 49:18, where Yaakov prophesies about the distant future). Besides Yosef’s conversations with Egyptians, where Elokim is clearly the more appropriate name, the name Elokim is also used when Yosef names his children (41:51-52), when Yosef’s brothers converse among themselves (42:28), when Yosef reveals himself to his brothers (45:5-9), and even when God Himself appears to Yaakov (46:2-3)!
Perhaps this phenomenon reflects the tension in Yosef’s experience in Egypt. On the one hand, Yosef does a remarkable job of staying faithful to God despite the powerful temptations that arise. From the incident with Potiphar’s wife to the countless opportunities he has to take credit for his own accomplishments, rather than attributing them to God, Yosef does not stop mentioning God’s name. At the same time, however, Yosef cannot help the fact that his immersion within Egyptian high society erodes some of the intimacy of his relationship with God. Although God clearly remains a factor in Yosef’s life, He is somewhat more withdrawn, a guiding force in Yosef’s life Who nevertheless feels more distant than He did in Yaakov’s home in Eretz Yisrael. Over time, this affects the way in which Yosef refers to God even when he is not speaking to Egyptians. It even impacts the relationship between God and Yaakov’s family, as their fate becomes increasingly dependent upon Yosef and Egypt.
Remarkably, though, Yosef never allows this situation to impact him to the point where God might disappear from his life. Yosef leaves this world with the message that God (still called Elokim) will eventually return Yaakov’s family to the land which He promised their forefathers (50:24).
Jews in contemporary America can learn a lot from Yosef. We have been very successful in general American society, and that necessarily means that this society impacts our culture and style of speech. At the same time, we dare not let this society impact us so strongly as to distort our core values or our commitment to serving God. Particularly at this time of year, as we celebrate the Maccabees victory over Hellenism, our environment is inundated with messages about the “holiday season” of another religion. We must not allow ourselves to get sucked into this culture; rather, we must continue to hope that we will soon return to the land which God promised our forefathers, where we will be able to experience a more intimate relationship with Him.
(See Amos Chacham’s Introduction to the Daat Mikra commentary on Shemot, p. 25-26, for a different perspective on the disappearance of the Tetragrammaton in the latter part of Bereshit.)