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From Tribulation to Triumph

Yosef seems to fall prey to all sorts of troubles. Yet, the sages have singled out one “trial”, in particular, which served to both transform Yosef as a person and set the course for his place in the story of his people. When the Yishmaelite traders finally reach Egypt, they sold Yosef as a slavery to Potiphar, a high official in Pharaoh’s house. From there, Yosef made a name for himself as a successful administrator of his master’s house, eventually being left in almost total control of his master’s affairs. After informing us of Yosef’s accomplishments and his rise in status, the Torah sees fit to remind us of some of Yosef’s other attributes:

And Yosef was comely of features and comely to look at. (Genesis 39:6)

This description of Yosef’s physical traits immediately precedes what the rabbinic sages considered to be Yosef’s most monumental test – his confrontation with his master, Potphar’s wife:

And it happened after these things (had’varim haeleh) that his master’s wife raised her eyes to Yosef and said, ‘Lie with me.’ And he refused… [for my master] has held nothing back from me except you, as you are his wife, and how could I do this great evil and give offence to God… (Genesis 39:7-20)

There were those among the sages who thought that Yosef brought these troubles upon himself. These sages were inspired to this thinking by two textual clues. The first, as noted above, was the juxtaposition of the description of Yosef’s physical beauty with the story of the happenings in Potiphar’s house. The second clue was to be found in the words “these things” which the storyline in the Torah leaves undefined. This lack of specificity inspired the question, “Which things?” thus, providing the sages an opportunity to examine the depths of Yosef’s inner thoughts regarding his situation and his relationship to God.

Here, I present two alternative answers to this question as found in a midrash from the period of the Talmud:

And it happened after these things – [At that moment, thoughts about things (hirhurei devarim) troubled Yosef there. What did Yosef think about? He said: When I was in abba’s house, whenever Abba saw a goodly portion, he gave it to me and my brothers were jealous of me; now I thank you that I have relief. The Holy One Blessed be He said to him: I swear, by your life, that I will arouse the bear’s (Potiphar’s wife’s) interest in you.

Another interpretation: said: Father (Yaakov) was tested; Grandfather (Avraham) was tested; but I have not been tested. Said the Holy One Blessed be He to him (Yosef): By your life, I will test you with an even greater test than I ever tested them. (Bereishit Rabbah 87:4 according to manuscript Vatican 30, see Theodore-Albeck ed. 1063-4)

In the first take, Yosef thinks his life challenges are over. Despite the fact that he is now a slave, he thinks that he no longer has to contend with the problems of being the “privileged child” and that he is now home free. He does not seem to realize that he must still keep his guard up to contend with other things which might crop up due to other aspects of his privileged status. Obviously, the lesson being taught here is that life is a never-ending set of challenges which cannot be easily escaped and that this is a truth we must face up to.

In the stories alternative version, an emboldened Yosef sees himself in light of his glorious ancestors. In his mind, he was no less worthy of being tested than they were and would incur similar success. God answers Yosef’s hubris by challenging him with what the sages thought to be a tremendously difficult trial – being enticed by his master’s wife. Yosef’s triumph over this temptation initially led to further travail but ultimately transformed him into a better person.

The two different alternative plotlines offered up by this midrash show us not only how our attitudes and thoughts influence how we potentially create for ourselves life’s challenges; it also gives us insight into how face down these challenges and turn them into triumphs.

About the Author
Mordechai Silverstein is a teacher of Torah who has lived in Jerusalem for over 30 years. He specializes in helping people build personalized Torah study programs.
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