Double Mitzvah – Vayeshev

Double Mitzvah Jewrotica Parsha

Written by Maya B. Alma. Maya B. Alma is Jewrotica’s new Double Mitzvah columnist!

Check out last week’s column, Double Mitzvah – Vayishlach.

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Rated PG-13Last week, in exploring the Rape of Dinah, I apologized for the uncharacteristically dark “Double Mitzvah” column. I also warned that that there’d be a like companion this week, as we explored Parashat Vayeshev (Genesis 37:1-40:23). Our parashah presents us with another episode which, especially to the audience of a sex-positive site like Jewrotica, ought to give us pause and invite us to reflect on what lines are inviolable when it comes to our sexuality.

Let’s set the stage: Joseph, the spoiled son of the favored wife, has a lousy relationship with his brothers. He dreams about his superiority over said brothers (and his parents, too) and tells them about it. He wears a fancy coat, a gift from his doting father. His brothers hate him. So much so that, when his father sends him off to check up on them, they execute a plot. Initially planning to kill him, in the end they (merely) sell him into slavery. He winds up in Egypt, where his charisma and resourcefulness propel him up through the ranks in the home of Potiphar, an Egyptian priest. Ultimately, he becomes steward, and as we read (Genesis 39:6), “[Potiphar] left all that he had in Joseph’s hands; he withheld nothing from him, save the bread that he ate.” On which Rashi, following the Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 86:6) comments: “‘Bread’ is a euphemism here; it means Potiphar’s wife.”

So Joseph is running the house, free to do as he pleases in almost every way. It is into this mix that the Torah throws this salient detail (ibid.): “Joseph was yefeh to’ar uyefeh mar’eh,” literally “of beautiful description, beautiful to look at.” On which Rashi (here following Midrash Tanhuma, Vayeshev 8) comments:

As soon as Joseph found himself in the position of ruler, he began eating and drinking and primping his hair. Said the Holy One, blessed be He: “Your father is mourning and you primp your hair! Watch out, boy; here comes the bear!” Immediately afterwards“his master’s wife lifted up her eyes.”

Let’s see how the story plays out:

After a time, his master’s wife cast her eyes upon Joseph and said, “Lie with me.” But he refused. He said to his master’s wife, “Look, with me here, my master gives no thought to anything in this house, and all that he owns he has placed in my hands. He wields no more authority in this house than I, and he has withheld nothing from me except yourself, since you are his wife. How then could I do this most wicked thing, and sin before God?” And much as she coaxed Joseph day after day, he did not yield to her request to lie beside her, to be with her.

One such day, he came into the house to do his work. None of the household being there inside, she caught hold of him by his garment and said, “Lie with me!” But he left his garment in her hand and got away and fled outside. When she saw that he had left it in her hand and had fled outside, she called out to her servants and said to them, “Look, he had to bring us a Hebrew to dally with us! This one came to lie with me; but I screamed loud. And when he heard me screaming at the top of my voice, he left his garment with me and got away and fled outside.” She kept his garment beside her, until his master came home. Then she told him the same story, saying, “The Hebrew slave whom you brought into our house came to me to dally with me; but when I screamed at the top of my voice, he left his garment with me and fled outside.”

When his master heard the story that his wife told him, namely, “Thus and so your slave did to me,” he was furious. So Joseph’s master had him put in prison, where the king’s prisoners were confined.

In our society, there’s been a tendency to laugh off such sexual crimes when the gender roles don’t follow the usual pattern. The pretty female teacher who has sex with the captain of the high school football team elicits snickers, and people joke about what a lucky guy he was. Though fading, this tendency persists. We’ve also had our share of laughs at Joseph’s expense, in the playful, campy take on the story offered up by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. We laugh along as Donny Osmond is tempted (and doesn’t he play it just great?). And maybe it’s okay to do so, as we know that this episode in his life is the necessary prelude to his rise to power and his eventual saving of his family (and thus, our people).

But in truth, Potiphar’s wife wields tremendous power over the young slave, and that power is abused. Consent (the topic of last week’s column) is always required. We can’t throw the rule out the window just because the victim is a handsome young man and the aggressor a hot cougar. And is consent really possible when the real-life power differential is so great? Mrs. P and Joseph weren’t playing a game; they hadn’t agreed on a safe word.

Setting aside the Lloyd Webber/Rice treatment for a moment, we can see the darker side of the story. We can note the striking resemblance it bears to this tragic moment from modern American literature, and remember that Harper Lee’s Tom Robinson doesn’t wind up in the same happy place as the biblical Joseph.

It’s obvious and cliche to say it any more, but it’s true: sexual harassment and sexual assault have little to do with sex, and much to do with power. In the classroom, in the workplace, in the halls of the beit midrash and the halls of government, people (often, but not exclusively, men) take advantage of power to satisfy an appetite. In doing so, they ruin lives in ways big and small.

The problem is as old as Chapter 39 of Genesis, and as fresh as yesterday’s Ha’aretz editorial page. May it be brought to an end bimheira beyameinu, speedily and in our time. May these lines from Judy Chicago’s poem “Merger,” well-known to many who’ve prayed them in creative liturgical settings, come true:

And then both men and women will be gentle.
And then both women and men will be strong.
And then no person will be subject to another’s will.

May it be so.

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  • Ayo Oppenheimer

    Rabbi, you and this parsha share with us an important message about power dynamics. We discuss this theme in several of our Jewrotica workshops, with the story of Joseph & Potiphar’s wife presented playfully through the lens of ‘the Torah’s first cougar and desperate housewife’ but also as a serious foil for discussing relationships in the modern day.

    Thank you for another thoughtful Double Mitzvah column, and I love the videos! 🙂

    • Larry Bach

      Thanks for the feedback, Ayo!

  • B

    Rabbi,

    Your commentary is incredibly relevant and insightful. As someone whose consent has not always been valued, reading this and last week’s articles has been an emotional but uplifting experience. I am so glad you joined the Jewrotica team!

    • Larry Bach

      So am I, B. Thank you so much letting me know that the pieces were meaningful to you.

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