The rabbinic tradition characterizes Yosef as “HaTzadik – the ultimate righteous one”. Yet, his youthful behavior does not seem to reflect this distinction. Clearly the favored son and doted upon by his father, he takes this to be a sign of his “royal bearing”. He is arrogant and overcome by his sense of superiority over his brothers, indeed, over his entire family. His behavior is condescending and overbearing. If he is a leader, he does not carry his status lightly. His behavior so offended his brothers that they betrayed him and ultimately sold him to a caravan of Midianites/Yishmaelites, who, in turn, sold him as a slave to a certain Egyptian government official named Potiphar. If these events put a dent in his inflated ego, Yosef still managed to reestablish his “royal” bearing even as a slave serving a master.
No question Yosef was competent, a masterful leader, admired by all and apparently good looking to boot. These qualities brought about the life test which transformed him: “And it happened after these things that his master’s wife raised her eyes to Joseph and said: ‘Lie with me.’ And he refused. And he said to his master’s wife, ‘my master has given no thought with me here to what is in the house, and all that he has placed in my hands… how could I do this great evil and give offence to God…’” (Genesis 39:8-9)
Position, power, appetite, temptation and gratification – a potent and dangerous mixture which has caused so many to fall. However, for Yosef, this episode proved a turning point in his life. What enabled him to withstand this sin? For the Torah, it seems, it was his loyalty to his master, the trust placed in him and his unwillingness to offend God which kept him from the sin.
One rabbinic midrash understood how powerful this enticement must have been and how Yosef had to muster every available resource to conquer his evil inclination. : “Rabbi Shmuel bar Nahman said:… he (Yosef) checked himself and did not see himself as an “ish – a man”, [namely, he knew that if he followed through on the sin, he would no longer be a “mensch”)… Rav Huna in the name of Rabbi Matana said: ‘He saw the image of his father and his blood ran cold’.” (See Genesis Rabbah 87:7 for more colorful examples)
A later midrash expressed this motif even more colorfully: Said Rabbi Yehudah bar Shalom: “He saw the image of his father and it said to him: ‘Yosef, Yosef in the future your brothers’ names will be inscribed on the ephod (worn by the High Priest), do you really want to be excluded and be known as a pimp? Refuse her!’” (Tanhuma Vayeshev 8)
We live in an age where some who have risen to position and power and have even made great names for themselves for doing outstanding things have let the temptations of power overcome them. The story of Yosef’s conquest over these temptations is a valuable lesson in one man’s struggle to overcome these obstacles. This effort is what earned him the title “HaTzadik – the Righteous One”.