Rabbi Dr. Michael Bernstein
Seeds of Royalty
Joseph is carried off to slavery in Egypt setting off a chain of events, which would bring his entire family down after him and lead to centuries of Jewish bondage. At this moment of high drama, the scene shifts away to the story of Judah and Tamar (38:1). Judah falsely accuses Tamar of adultery, and when he realizes that he himself is the father of the unborn child, he acknowledges his paternity in a courageous confession. Then the story returns to Joseph in Egypt. It would appear that this interlude is somehow of crucial relevance to the divine plan of establishing the family of Jacob in Egypt. How is this so?
As we have seen from the beginning of Genesis, the underlying theme of the first book of the Torah is the resolution of brotherly strife. The final third of the book reveals the interaction of God’s providence and the fledgling Jewish nation, which results in the personal growth of Jacob’s children and the formation of a cohesive and loving family.
Rabbi Israel Chait, my teacher, has observed how each of the elements of the Jewish people had their unique challenges. Jacob’s special attachment to Joseph and Benjamin, his sons from his beloved wife Rachel, interfered with the development of the nation. Joseph, blessed with talent and beauty, had to learn to direct his energies away from himself. And his brothers had to overcome their instinctive feelings of jealousy and accept their brother as he was: a superior person who was closer to their father and fit for leadership.
Against this background of spiritual growth, we encounter the subplot of Judah and Tamar. According to tradition, there will be two Messiahs, a preliminary one descended from Joseph, to be followed by a descendant of King David of the tribe of Judah. These two kingship strands begin at the point of Joseph’s sale into slavery. Joseph descends to Egypt, and Judah turns away from his brothers because of his misgivings (see Rashi 38:1). The strands come together when Joseph and Judah become the chief agents in the restoration and redemption of Jacob’s family, as they will eventually come together in Messianic times. The interaction of Judah and Tamar holds the key to Judah’s personal growth, making him worthy of kingship.
Judah’s destiny for kingship probably began at he time of his birth when his mother Leah expressed gratitude to God. This trait is the cornerstone requirement of a Jewish earthly king. The honor and pomp associated with kingship cannot interfere with the obligation to recognize God’s majesty.
Throughout the story of Joseph, we are keenly aware of Judah’s leadership qualities. When Joseph’s brothers decided to cast him into the pit it was Judah who initiated his sale to Egypt to avoid his being killed. All the brothers were righteous people devoid of conscious evil intent, with many rationalizations and justifications for their actions. It was Judah, however, who was able to step back from the precipice of murder and lead his brothers by his vision.
Later on, we see a repentant Judah vouch for the safety of Benjamin, Jacob’s other favorite son, despite the preponderance of evidence that points to Benjamin’s guilt. Judah was willing to sacrifice his own life to save his brother and rectify his sin. This is the heart of a king. The bond forged by this act of heroism lasted throughout history. The strip of the territory of Benjamin upon which the Temple stood was surrounded and protected by the territory of Judah. The tribe of Benjamin was also part of the Kingdom of Judah, unlike the tribes who were “lost.” Most Jewish people today are descended from these two tribes.
In its broadest structure, the theme of the story of Judah and Tamar addresses Judah’s erroneous first judgment of Tamar. In response to Judah’s allegation, Tamar uses the same language the brothers used in reporting Joseph’s death to their father (37:22). “Haker na,” she says (38:25). “Please recognize [these things].” At that moment, when Tamar unwittingly confronted Judah with his own words, he realized his great sin against both Joseph and Tamar. Judah now understood that just as God had guided the events that led him to judge Tamar harshly and unjustly, so too might he have prematurely judged Joseph, leading to a tragic error.
Overcome by repentance, Judah said to Tamar (38:26), “She is more righteous than I am.” With his new insight, Judah gains the capacity to withhold judgment, which becomes manifest in his defense of Benjamin. The story of Judah and Tamar is, therefore, not a digression but an intrinsic part of the providential process that guided Judah, the progenitor of the Davidic dynasty, in his spiritual growth and prepared the way for his descendants to ascend to royalty.
We find a clue in the Midrash Rabbah quoted by Rashi on the verse which introduces the event (39:11), “And it was like this day, and [Joseph] came to the house . . .” Commenting on the words “this day,” the Midrash explains that it was “a special day, a day of merriment, a religious day, that they all went to the house of idol worship.”
On a simple level, the Midrash is describing the circumstances that allowed Potiphar’s wife to be found alone with Joseph. On a deeper level, the Midrash is hinting at a profound spiritual longing Joseph was experiencing at the time, a longing that Potiphar’s wife believed would make him vulnerable to her advances.
In the United States, it is customary for families to get together on Thanksgiving Day. Traditionally, they play, watch football and share a festive meal. Those who cannot make it to these family gatherings generally experience feelings of unusual loneliness, longing, and melancholy. Although the celebration for most Americans is secular, the day touches people in a spiritual way by awakening memories of warmth, family and belonging to a greater whole. The inability to participate is frustrating.
Similarly, when the Egyptians celebrated their idolatry, the feeling of belonging to a greater whole aroused an element of spirituality, albeit corrupted, in the populace, as the Midrash would seem to indicate. At its source, this yearning stems from the soul’s desire to cling to God in a service greater and more eternal than the body’s temporal existence provides. This aspiration‘s importance is expressed in the Rosh Hashanah prayer in which we pray for mankind to form a single group in unified worship of God. Any national celebration taps into this spiritual yearning and diverts it into different channels.
Potiphar’s wife sensed that the atmosphere of spirituality of the pagan holiday would touch Joseph and evoke within him feelings of longing for his own family. It was on that day that she again offered herself as a loving “surrogate family” with which to connect, a haven for Joseph’s unrequited spiritual longing and loneliness. This approach is supported by Rashi, who states that Potiphar’s wife sought to join with Joseph in this world and the next.
The Torah may also be alluding to another aspect of Potiphar’s wife’s plan (39:12), “And she grabbed him by his garment, saying, ‘Lie with me.’” She may have been using the symbol of the garment to remind him of his own special garment that his brothers stripped from him and stained with blood before presenting it to their father. But on an even deeper level, it may be symbolic of a clever psychological ploy. The word for “garment,” beged, is also the three-letter root word for betrayal. In this instance, the double entendre of the word beged reflects a profound insight into the nature of sin.
A person with a strong conscience, such as Joseph, cannot easily sin without rationalizing the guilty pleasure he is considering. One justification may take the form of rebellion, which can be liberating. The rebellious mind justifies sin by shifting blame to someone else. Potiphar’s wife was playing on this by grabbing his “beged” and encouraging him to betray and rebel against his Jewish family and their values.
In effect, she was saying to Joseph, “Look, your family sold you away and has not even regretted it enough to search for you in all this time. Cling to me and not to them.” Such an appeal would allow Joseph to have the pleasure that Potiphar’s wife offered. In his rebellion, he could blame his actions on his treacherous brothers who had supposedly caused him to sin by putting him into this situation. Of course, we do not know how much Potiphar’s wife had investigated Joseph’s history. If she, in fact, did not know about his brothers, Joseph could have supplied the words for her in his own mind to rationalize his betrayal.
The Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 86:7; Tanchuma 8:9) is sensitive to the seductive appeal of this rationalization. It states that the image of Jacob appeared to Joseph, and he refrained from sin. Joseph realized that this beckoning union was offering only an ersatz version of the spiritual life of his family that he missed. The image of his righteous father would not allow him to rationalize his sin.
Despite Potiphar’s wife’s attempt to grab Joseph in his “rebellion,” Joseph nonetheless left the beged (garment, rebellion) in her hand, as the verse concludes.
When this happened, Potiphar’s wife knew she had completely lost him. Furthermore, considering this her best opportunity for success, she had probably bared her soul to him as never before, and when he turned her down, the rejection must have been unbearable. Not surprisingly, the love she felt for him turned to hatred, and she turned on him with all her fury in an unbridled outburst of slander.