Identification and Sin

Rabbi Israel Chait

Written by a student

Student: Rashi on Gen. 39:6 says that Joseph’s beautification of his hair while his father was mourning precipitated his descent to prison which lasted about a decade. It seems the punishment is far more severe than his crime. What is your take on the “measure–for–measure” aspect of this? Thank you.

Rabbi Israel Chait:  By beautifying himself while his father mourned, Joseph broke his identification with his father Jacob. Thereby, he was open to many sins. The rabbis comment on, “And Joseph went into the house to do his work” (Gen. 39:11) saying this refers to Joseph’s intent to sleep with Potiphar’s wife (Sota 36b). What saved him from sleeping with her was the image of his father which appeared to him at that moment. Had Joseph always maintained his identification with Jacob, he would not have intended to sleep with her. Rashi means that Joseph breaking his identification with Jacob left him open to many wrong actions. And even though Joseph ultimately refrained from sleeping with Potiphar’s wife, he still possessed some corruption (demanding his imprisonment to remove his flaw).

Student: “But they rebelled against me and would not hearken to Me; they did not — every man — cast away the detestable things of their eyes, neither did they forsake the idols of Egypt. Then I said I would pour out My fury upon them in the midst of the land of Egypt” (Ezek. 20:8).

Sforno (Gen. 15:13) quoting Ezekiel, says the Jews’ idolatry earned their Egyptian bondage. Sforno adds, “While the 12 Shevatim were alive, no servitude began.” Rebbe, you said that Joseph beatifying himself while Jacob mourned expressed Joseph’s breach of his identification with Jacob, which opened him to sin. Here too it appears the Jews’ identification with Jacob’s sons restrained their idolatrous tendencies. Only once the Shevatim died did the Jews succumb to Egypt’s idolatry.

Thank you again for your explanation.