Yosef’s story in chapter 39 in many ways mirrors Yehuda’s in the previous chapter. They both begin with descent, and they both pivot around the actions of a seductive woman who appropriates personal possessions, and who makes an accusation of sexual impropriety. But while it’s undeniable that Yosef finds himself in much more difficult circumstances than Yehuda, it is Yosef’s story that is saturated both with a sense of Divine presence and success. The two are related. While the Torah explains Yosef’s success as Divinely arranged, the Midrash gives more credit to Yosef himself. Explaining how Yosef’s master saw that ‘God is with him’, the Midrash suggests that God’s name was constantly on Yosef’s lips.
If so, it was Yosef’s attitude, not his good luck, that earned Potiphar’s trust, and it was an attitude that shouldn’t be taken for granted. For Yosef, rejected by his brothers, perhaps even by his father, to think that he had been rejected by God as well, that he no longer had any part in the God of Israel, would be an entirely reasonable conclusion. To maintain the name of God on his lips was to stubbornly, boldly, cleave to hope.
From the Midrash, and from Yosef’s speech in subsequent chapters, we can imagine God’s name on Yosef’s lips in thanksgiving for his great successes, first in Potiphar’s house, and then in jail. Baruch Hashem. But in this chapter, we hear Yosef invoke God’s name not in those successes, but in his moment of greatest crisis. It is not God as provider whom he praises, but God as commander whom he obeys. And perhaps herein lies the secret to Yosef’s ability to see hope and light in servitude and imprisonment. For as long as a person sees himself as commanded by God, he can’t see himself as rejected by Him. As long as one feels obligated by God’s laws, one can feel accompanied by God’s presence.
This is (thus far) a daily series of short reflections in English on the daily chapter of Tanach in the (wonderful, wonderful) 929 Project. The initiative, and the ideas and opinions expressed here, are my own. If you haven’t heard of 929, you can learn more at 929.org.il