Joseph in the Tabloids
We have made it through the last of the chapters of the first Book of the Torah, Bereshit, Genesis. We have gone from creation to the first Hebrew to the quarrel between the brothers that leads to the elevation of Joseph as second only to Pharaoh in Egypt. We know, of course, that the stage is now set for the drama that follows, from Slavery to Freedom.
The book ends with the death of Joseph and his prediction to brothers that they will once again eventually be returned to the land of Israel. So much of the final chapters of Bereshit deal with Joseph, more so than even Abraham. What are we to make of the measure of this man?
The story of Joseph has enthralled the human imagination since antiquity. Mohamed is said to have called it the most beautiful of stories and Voltaire, who generally hated all things religious, called it the most valuable piece of literature to be preserved from antiquity.
The story makes for high literature as well, A great author such as Thomas Mann could create a trilogy on the account
Pop Culture has given us its own version of Joseph—You all know the Andrew Lloyd Weber Musical, “ Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” with an Elvis Presley double as Pharaoh.of Joseph and his brothers.
There is one key element to Joseph that secures his reputation—his sense of loyalty and because of that, his ability to resist temptation by the boss’s wife.
The theme of resistance to seduction that is the turning point in Josephs fortune pops up in an ancient Egyptian tale of Two Brothers written probably about the time of our Joseph. There, it is the wife of the older brother who makes her pass at the younger brother, which tells us that even in ancient pagan Egypt there were rules against adultery . It also appears in the movie that made Dustin Hoffman famous, “ The Graduate”. In the modern version, of course, the hero succumbs quite easily to seduction by the neighbor’s wife.
That is how far we have gone beyond the Egyptian pagans!
Long before Rock Operas and great novels, however, the Sages of ancient Israel knew the character of Joseph very well and what they did to his character and to his personality beats out anything the Creative Artist could imagine.
What we often call Jewish legends are details taken from the Midrash, which are bits and pieces of teachings and sermons given by the Sages many centuries ago as they sought to highlight or downplay elements in the Torah in order to make a point.
Thus, we must first sympathize with Mrs. Potiphar. Look what she had to deal with. Our Sages said that Joseph was as beautiful as a violet, just like his mother Rachel. They imagined a scene in which Mrs. Potiphar invites her friends over. She serves them oranges and while they are peeling their oranges with their knives, in walks Joseph. As they look, they are all so stunned that they begin to peel themselves instead. She tells her guests: Do you realize that I have to withstand this every moment of the day!
Now, what of Joseph’s character? On the one hand, there were Sages who said that he was of exemplary character and kept all the laws of the Torah in Egypt, even though they had not yet been given. If he made the mistake of being at home on the fatal day of his downfall, it was out of virtue—it was vacation day, when everyone else went to the Theater for bawdy and raunchy humor. Joseph was above all that nonsense. As for temptation, they said, he was constantly being tested by the beautiful maidens of Egypt who tried to bribe him for his attentions. Potiphar’s wife, they said, tried every trick in the book, not only bribery, but threats to jail him, cripple him, and even send agents back to his homeland to murder his father. None of that budged him. He was truly Yosef HaZadik, Joseph the Righteous, Pillar of the World.
On the other hand – you we always have another hand. Our Sages taught that the greater the person, the greater yet is the power of the yetzer hara, the passions, the desires, the drives.
For example, they pointed out that , Joseph, is 17 is described as “ Naar”, still a boy. In other words, they said, he acted like a dandy, a playboy- put on eyeliner, curled his hair, walked gingerly on his toes. The text told us that he brought “ reports of wrong doings “ about his brothers to his father. A snitch! The Sages elaborated—He out and out lied- He snitched- He told his father-“Your sons eat meat while the animal is still alive, chase after the local girls, and the senior brothers abuse their half-brothers.” You can sense how the interpreters are starting to turn the screws on Joseph.
What happened when he found his job with boss Potiphar. Now, all his youthful; pride has returned. He is now Yafeh Toar Vyafeh Mareh –Beautiful of form and fair to look upon. He returned to his old self, dandied himself again, started eating and merry-making. In short, they accused him of forgetting his father left behind in a distant land. Never once did he attempt to send a message back home to reassure his father that he was safe! He was instead imbued with his own sense of success and self-righteousness.
That is why, these Sages said, G-d sent him what they called, “a female bear” to attack him.
They then ask if Joseph was truly as innocent as it seemed on that fateful day.
Why, on this day, of all days, when no one else was around , why did he decide he needed to work? Did he not realize that “ none of the men were at home.” Well then, if he went to do malachto , “his work”, it was “ his” work, not his bosses that he was going to do. What could “his” work have meant if not to be available for the seduction. Then, when he finally refuses her demands, he “leaves his clothes in her hands”. She didn’t have to tear it off—it came off only too easily.
What was it then, that finally made Joseph step back from the brink. What finally made Joseph different from famous Senators or Generals and other great men in the news of late who could not hold themselves back?
The Sages went on—he had “outside intervention”. One tale suggested that he saw his father’s image, yet another that he saw his mother’s image, and finally that alone served to remind him who he was and what was expected of him. Yet another midrash has it that finally G-d himself had to intervene , appear to Joseph and threaten that if he caved in, G-d would destroy the whole world! Only that nuclear threat held Joseph back from the brink.
Now, we must ask, as we step back from what clearly seems to be smear campaign: Why did the Sages engage in this
campaign to seemingly demean one of the most popular figures in the Bible, one who seems so admirable and noble? Why the muckraking, why the character smear?
Interestingly, we find such criticisms of all of the great figures of the Bible. Who is as great as Moses, for example? Yet there were Rabbis who said that he deserved his death at the end because, at the start of his career, he killed the Egyptian taskmaster without a fair trial.
Of King David, the Sages said Saul was the better man.
Abraham was noble, yes, but he delivered captives prisoners to his allies, instead of freeing them.
Elijah was cold-hearted, because he denounced his people and had no faith in them.
None of the greats escaped unscathed from the sharp critical minds of the Jewish commentators. Why would they have done so ? To what benefit from destroying heroes?
It all makes sense if we remember that we are of an iconoclastic faith- we shatter idols, even our own. We believe that no one is perfect. We are iconoclasts—we must shatter idols. Idols are not just stone monuments. Any entity or any person can become an idol to others. Even the finest person runs the risk of becoming an idol to others.
For this reason, our tradition treats our heroes -more roughly and with less respect that any other religion.
Classical Judaism has no room for cults of personality—we can’t let our heroes become small gods. Therefore, Moses is buried in an unknown grave so that he can never be worshipped . Yosef Hazadik, Joseph the Righteous, is knocked down a peg. No human being can be considered immaculate, born immaculate, and certainly never be the incarnation of G-d. Even the word Zadik which we used to distinguish righteous people, does not infer a papal infallibility.
On principal, we don’t believe in human perfection but we can speak of perfectibility. We can use the term zadik, Righteous, to indicate one who has strived to lead a righteous life and overcame great personal stumbling blocks to achieve it. In so doing, we are saying that all of us are capable of choosing either the right path or the wrong path. The great ones were not born greater than us. We can not take the excuse that we have obstacles in our lives. No. Look what obstacles Joseph had to overcome—his ego, his vanity, the wiles of a temptress. He had “affluenza”!
He was not blind to it all. He overcame it all. That is the lesson for us.
We may not have Joseph’s good looks, nor his clever wit and managerial skills. We may not have to deal with a Mrs. Potiphar.
But we do have our own strengths and our own gifts and we are given free will to use them for good and to deal with our weaknesses. If Joseph could do it, and become a Zadik, then we can do it too, in our own way.