Yesterday, to my surprise, I experienced a moment of sympathy for Potiphar’s wife.
Don’t get me wrong, the woman is not one of my biblical heroines. She was an adulterous seductress; not the kind of person I’d choose to call a friend or spend time with. But if you accept the talmudic reading (Sotah 36b) that interprets the verse “And it came to pass about this time, that Joseph went into the house to do his business” as Joseph coming in that day with the explicit intention of succumbing to her wiles… then you feel even more palpably her disappointment and rejection in the moment as he flees, leaving his garment in her grasping hands.
So close! she howls to herself, pressing the still-warm garment to her. So beautiful, so desirable.
Rejected, smarting, she kicks up an almighty fuss and gets him the boot.
We refer to Joseph as “Joseph the Righteous.” Because he was spotless and perfect? I don’t think so. Rather, he was righteous in that he managed to overcome his evil inclination. He grew into his righteousness over the years, with manifold mistakes along the way. As Australian poet and Torah teacher Deborah Masel z”l writes so beautifully in her book In the Cleft of the Rock,“Joseph crawls snail-paced from narcissism to self-knowledge, while Judah, in the blink of an eye, looks, recognizes and cries ‘She is more righteous than I!’”
The cited talmudic reading indicates that Joseph was no innocent in this situation. He might also have, consciously or semi-consciously, been encouraging Potiphar’s wife with his “curling of his hair,” or paralyzing her with his looks that caused women to cut their hands while slicing citrons (Tanchuma Vayeshev 8 and 5 respectively). He might have, even while she made him uncomfortable — this was, let’s face it, sexual harassment — been enjoying his power over her, when he has been so powerless till now vis-à-vis the entire world. It would be understandable.
Ultimately, though, he leaves her lust (the Quran actually has it as love) unmet and unrequited. And now I too want to flee from Potiphar’s wife, who proves by her vindictive and deceitful reaction (not to mention her complete lack of morals) to be undeserving of my sympathy, to discuss the unrequited love of some more worthy characters.
Michal and Leah
We have Michal, who “loved David” (Samuel II:18:20), but her feelings are not returned; he is happy to be the king’s son-in-law, but emotionally is closer to her brother Jonathan than to her. She is ultimately left to her own bitterness and solitude. Her final interaction with David that we know of is sarcastic and devoid of any love. Yes, rings true. A dismissed heart turns all former sweetness to bile. Michal dies childless and alone.
Another woman unsuccessfully seeking a man’s love is Leah. Leah might have Jacob’s body by her side, but his heart is with Rachel. How sad are Leah’s words when naming her children, with her feelings of hope and rejection plain for everyone to see: “Surely the Lord has looked upon my affliction; now therefore my husband will love me”; then “Because the Lord has heard that I was hated, he has therefore given me this son also; and then “Now this time will my husband be joined to me, because I have born him three sons” (Genesis 39:22-25). By the fourth son, Judah, she has given up, and simply says “Now I will praise the Lord.”
Are there also men who long for women? Samson loves Delilah, and Shechem loves Dinah, and neither of those worked out so well, to say the least. We’re also not told explicitly that Isaac’s love for Rebecca, or Jacob’s for Rachel, are returned per se — though mostly we presume it. In any event, we do not witness any of these men pining and yearning as the spurned Michal and Leah do.
Living with a Broken Heart
To be the bearer of unrequited feelings is no easy thing, especially if it occurs repeatedly. In today’s reality, where many people spend long years seeking that person with whom the feelings are mutual, it is much more common. Having the most delicate and vulnerable offering one can make to another rejected requires much in order to get over the blow: heaping helpings of stamina, courage and an ever-renewing sense of love for oneself, the most primary and important kind of love there is and the best shield against rejection. It requires us to remember that, regardless, we live in a world of love — both divine and human — and that love is given, not demanded.
These alone will provide the superhuman ability to pick up one’s broken heart from the floor where it is lying, glue those fragments back together for the umpteenth time, and keep going, muttering the motto, “Hope limps eternal.” Vengeful reactions resembling those of Potiphar’s wife will only rebound negatively on the doer. The only answer is have faith, resist despair, as Rebbe Nachman insisted.
“Now I will praise the Lord.” Did Leah lose hope, or simply arrive at a place where she could be thankful for what she had? She was grateful for the four children she had; did she also go one step further, to be grateful for her broken heart?
“Better to have loved and lost,” Tennyson says wistfully; and the Rebbe of Kotsk adds, in his fiery, uncompromising manner, “There is nothing so whole as a broken heart!” Rabbi Yitzhak Ginsburgh offers up some powerful imagery in his book Ahavah:
“In the longed-for future, even the loves which in our world are imaginary and fated to dwindle to nothing will be realized and become fruit trees…”
Yes. I can see those acres of orchards, stretching into the (gloriously romantic) sunset. The thought is strangely comforting.