This week we read the dramatic story of Joseph and his roller coaster ride from favored son to slave to agent of Pharaoh to Pharaoh’s prisoner. And we know that that’s only the beginning. This story is part of popular culture, having been told in the Broadway show (1968!) Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Coat. I think the best word I could use to describe this show is “cute.” And there’s one song I want to quote from briefly. The song is called “Potiphar,” and it tells the story of Potiphar’s wife’s attempt seduction of Joseph, his refusal, and Potiphar’s false accusation. Here’s one stanza from the song:
Joseph's looks and handsome figure
Had attracted her attention
Ev'ry morning she would beckon
"Come and lie with me, love."
Joseph wanted to resist her
'Till one day she proved too eager.
Joseph cried in vain,
"Please stop! I don't believe in free love!"
Again, CUTE. But what a contrast from the much more moving and dramatic scene that we read in the Torah portion, Va-Yeishev:
Now it came to pass after these events that his master's wife lifted up her eyes to Joseph, and she said, "Lie with me."
זוַיְהִי אַחַר הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה וַתִּשָּׂא אֵשֶׁת אֲדֹנָיו אֶת עֵינֶיהָ אֶל יוֹסֵף וַתֹּאמֶר שִׁכְבָה עִמִּי:
But he refused, and he said to his master's wife, "Behold, with me my master knows nothing about anything in the house, and all he has he has given into my hand.
חוַיְמָאֵן | וַיֹּאמֶר אֶל אֵשֶׁת אֲדֹנָיו הֵן אֲדֹנִי לֹא יָדַע אִתִּי מַה בַּבָּיִת וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר יֶשׁ לוֹ נָתַן בְּיָדִי:
In this house, there is no one greater than I, and he has not withheld anything from me except you, insofar as you are his wife. Now how can I commit this great evil, and sin against God?"
There is nothing cute about this at all. This is a really remarkable scene between Joseph and Potiphar’s wife. Notice that there is no mention whatsoever of “free love.” Rather, Joseph tells “Mrs. Potiphar” (as she’s referred to in the show) that he does not wish to betray the man who has trusted him with everything in his household. Notice that Joseph implies that he could clearly cheat Potiphar, because Potiphar “knows nothing about anything in the house.” And Joseph recognizes that there is only one part of the household that he’s been denied, and that is the wife of Potiphar.
“Now how can I commit this great evil, and sin against God?” Isn’t it interesting that here Joseph shifts from his refusal to betray Potiphar to his refusal to betray GOD.
Think back to Adam and Eve. In Gad Eden, they have everything they could ever want, and God’s only restriction is to avoid the tree of knowledge. They of course rebel and violate his instructions. They sin. Joseph does not.
Think about, in more contemporary terms, how often people seem to have everything, and yet they want that one thing they don’t or can’t have. Athletes seem to have everything, but they seem unable to obey the simplest laws like laws against domestic violence or abuse. Hollywood stars have what looks like perfect lives, and yet so many turn to drugs or the nanny. Politicians may offer the best example—we give them our trust, and they seem to betray that trust over and over again. And often these sinners—the athletes, the politicians, and the movie stars—offer no apology, or, even worse, a fake apology that makes clear that there is no remorse.
Joseph was willing to suffer the ire of Potiphar’s wife and imprisonment rather than to betray his master, the man who had given him all but one thing. This is an important lesson for all of us. To be grateful for what we have and to do our best not to bite those hands that feed us.