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.