The Faculty of Jewish Studies
The Office of the Campus Rabbi
Parashat Va-yeshev 5758-1997
Joseph the Saint
Department of Bible
The portion of Va-Yeshev relates the vicissitudes of Joseph, from his days as a beloved lad in his father's house, through his sale to Egypt, his success in Potiphar's house, and then his being thrown in the dungeon, after having been framed by Potiphar's wife. Even in prison Joseph stands out as a success, serving as assistant to the wardens and correctly solving the dreams of the chief cupbearer and baker. There the Torah reading ends, leaving us with a keen feeling of disappointment when the cupbearer forgets Joseph's request to petition Pharoah for his release.
The narrative has a clear pattern of ups and downs, rhythmically repeated: Joseph, the favorite son in his father's house (up); Joseph in the pit, sold by his brothers (down); Joseph a success story in Potiphar's house (up); Joseph in the pit, the Egyptian prison (down); Joseph a success in prison, solving dreams (up); Joseph forgotten, left once again in the pit (down). Note especially how these travails are concretely reflected, the "pit" being either literally a hole in the ground or figuratively the dungeon.
The climax and end of the story of the alternating rise and fall of Joseph comes in parshat Mi-ketz, where his rise to the Egyptian throne is described: "Pharaoh further said to Joseph, "See, I put you in charge of all the land of Egypt" (Gen. 41:41).
One can almost visualize Joseph as a marionette at the end of the string, being dragged and manipulated through strange adventures. This, however, is not the way of biblical narrative. Although G-d directs the world, human beings are not passive puppets; the individual's personality and deeds affect the course of events. Therefore we must ask, what part did Joseph play in his own adventures? What trait in his personality got him into trouble, embroiling him in such difficult, extreme situations?
Although a variety of answers have been given to this question, I would like to bring out a certain aspect of Joseph's character that finds expression in the different stories: naivete and trust in people. He did not sense the intensity of hatred and jealousy felt towards him (by his brothers). He did not believe that a person could lie and accuse someone falsely, out of vengefulness (Potiphar's wife), and he did not think people were likely to be ingrates (the chief cupbearer).
Three scenes in this week's reading can be understood better in the light of Joseph's innocence:
1) When Joseph is sent by his father to find his brothers in the field. The text explicitly notes that Joseph could have told his father that he had not found them in Shechem, but he made great efforts to find them ("wandering in the fields"). From the way he put his words to the person who found him in the fields, one can see Joseph's determination to carry out his mission and find his brothers: "I am looking for my brothers." Even though they were alone in the fields, he did not suspect them and had no qualms about approaching them. The Midrash stresses Joseph's positive feelings: "'When Joseph came up to his brothers' -- R. Eleazar said, he came praising them," and Rashi said, "He came with praise, rejoicing."
2) Joseph's interchange with Potiphar's wife also indicates great naivete. The scene is almost ridiculous: his master's wife was trying to seduce him (and let us not forget that seduction in the Bible is a very serious offense), while he was preaching morality to her. The thrust of his speech is two-fold: the moral aspect involved in breech of trust -- "My master gives no thought to anything in this house, and all that he owns he has placed in my hands"; and the religious -- "How then could I do this most wicked thing, and sin before G-d?" That is, relations with one's fellow man and relations with G-d.
Moreover, the fact that he came to Potiphar's house, "none of the household being there inside," indicates that he suspected nothing and could not sense the impending danger.
3) In jail, as well, Joseph did not lose his innocence and love of his fellow human beings. Note the charming scene in which he approached the chief cupbearer and chief baker, taking an interest in their emotional well-being: "When Joseph came to them in the morning, he saw that they were distraught. He asked Pharaoh's courtiers, who were with him in custody in his master's house, saying, 'Why do you appear downcast today?'" While solving the chief cupbearer's dream, Joseph asked him, "In three days Pharaoh will pardon you and restore you to your post ... But think of me when all is well with you again, and do me the kindness of mentioning me to Pharaoh, so as to free me from this place." Joseph did not stop with this request, but continued to tell what the reader already knows: "For in truth, I was kidnapped from the land of the Hebrews; nor have I done anything here that they should have put me in the dungeon." Nevertheless, Joseph's request was forgotten by the chief cupbearer: "Yet the chief cupbearer did not think of Joseph; he forgot him." Joseph's request expressed his trust in people, but did not meet with an equal response.
Joseph was not simply a victim of circumstances beyond his control. His lack of awareness and insensitivity to the evil that can be in people were the main factors that got him into trouble. Thus, we see that the recurrent pattern of rise and fall is a result of a dominant trait of his personality.
The Sages called Joseph a saint. One of the characteristics of a saint is the inability to see evil in someone else, for such evil does not exist in the saint himself. This enables us to understand the pitfalls of Joseph, the innocent child who grew up as the pampered favorite. Indeed, as the story unfolds in the coming chapters, we see how Joseph the lad matured, becoming wiser and stronger in his faith in G-d.
The weekly Torah portion is distributed with the assistance of the President's Fund for Torah and Science.