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Written by Sender Rozesz. Sender Rozesz is a practicing attorney with a background in Jewish pluralistic education for adults. The views reflected in his columns represent his own personal views, and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations, institutes or associations with whom he may be affiliated. For more Double Mitzvahs by Sender Rozesz, check out A Woman’s Vow, Sexual Motive, Choose Your Own Spouse, The Post-Honeymoon Journey, A Wise and Understanding People, The Blessing of Fertility, Abominations, Coitus Interruptus, Sexual Struggles,The Unspeakable Language of Passion, Cut vs. Uncut, The Silence of Bitterness, Sex and the Holiest Day of the Year, Shifting Beds and Sex in the Sukkah,Sex…In the Beginning, A Sexual Reboot, She’s My Beautiful Sister,Kosher Incest?, How They Met, Male-Female Intercourse, The First Kiss, The Power to Transform, and Onanism, Daughters-in-Law and Moshiach.
In this week’s Torah portion, one cannot help but marvel at some of the challenges that Joseph must have faced; challenges more deadly than navigating the Egyptian royal court; challenges more taxing than facing the brothers who sold him into slavery so many years ago. No, the true challenges came from Joseph’s in-laws.
After appointing Joseph as the Grand Viceroy of Egypt, with powers that are only second to Pharaoh himself, the Torah tells us that “Pharaoh named Joseph ‘Zaphenath Pa’neach,’ and he gave him Osnat the daughter of Poti Phera, the governor of On, for a wife.” Genesis, 41:45.
Who was Osnat? And who was Poti Phera? Oh boy.
If you noted a similarity between the name “Poti Phera” and Potiphar – Joseph’s original master when he was first sold into Egyptian slavery – you would be right. The Talmud states that “Poti Phera” is simply a feminized version of “Potiphar,” and that Poti Phera and Potiphar were the same person. Why then was Potiphar’s name changed to a more feminine version? The Talmud explains that this is: “because he became emasculated since he desired Joseph for homosexual relations.” See Babylonian Talmud, Sotah, 13b.
Let’s go back, so that we can fully appreciate the import of this detail.
When Joseph was first sold to Potiphar, the Torah immediately notes his miraculous success at his every undertaking, and that Potiphar consequently gave him free reign over his household. The description of Joseph’s success is followed by a highly complimentary description of Joseph’s appearance: “Joseph had handsome features and a beautiful complexion.” Genesis, 39:6. Interestingly, these are the precise words that were used to describe Joseph’s mother, Rachel (grammatically adjusted to account for gender).
Immediately afterwards, the Torah discusses the episode that resulted in Joseph being thrown into prison; the very same prison in which he would encounter two of Pharaoh’s servants, correctly interpret their dreams, be released from prison to correctly interpret Pharaoh’s dreams, advise Pharaoh as to how to prepare for the approaching famine revealed to him in his dreams, and lead to his consequential appointment as second-in-command.
What was the catalyst for these historically crucial events?
“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.'” Genesis, 39:7. Joseph, of course, refused to sleep with his master’s wife. However, according to at least one Talmudic opinion, he was sorely tempted. In fact, on one fateful day “he came to the house to do his work, and none of the people of the house were there in the house.” One interpretation of the words “to do his work,” is that he came to his master’s wife’s chambers for the purpose of sleeping with her. See Rashi. However, at that moment, he saw a vision of his father Jacob’s countenance; a vision which was sufficient to shake him free of temptation and restore his resolve. He ran from her house, leaving his coat in her hands.
Potiphar’s wife was no dimwit. She immediately turned the circumstances of her rejection into a weapon against Joseph – for hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. She called for the people of her household, and claimed that Joseph had been in the process of getting undressed to force himself onto her, when she screamed, frightening him. He ran away, leaving his clothes behind. If her story had a few holes in its logic, nobody saw fit to raise them. It was easy to believe that a slave from the other side of the Jordan River would behave in such a reprehensible manner.
Potiphar’s wife hung onto Joseph’s cloak. She had an even more creative tale for her husband. Initially, “she told him the same thing, saying, ‘the Hebrew slave that you brought to us came to me to mock me. And it happened when I raised my voice and called out, that he left his garment beside me and fled outside.” Genesis, 39, 16-18. However, she then raised the ante. “Now it came about when his master heard his wife’s report that she spoke to him, saying, ‘Your slave did such things to me,’ that his wrath burned.” Id. at 19. Accordingly to Rashi and other commentaries, what is this additional report that Potiphar’s wife made? “During intercourse she told him this, and that is the meaning of ‘Your slave did such things to me,’ such acts of intimacy.” In other words, when Potiphar would touch his wife, she would say “Oh, this is how your slave touched me.” When he kissed her, she would say, “Oh, this is how your slave kissed me.”
Can you blame him for getting pissed? Actually, was he angry because his wife was able to experience things with Joseph that he could not? Was he angry because he had already become castrated, so that he could not service his wife the way Joseph did? It seems that Potiphar’s wife would have been very foolish to speak to her husband that way if he was the jealous type. Her report sounds much more like the report that a “hotwife” might make to her cuckold husband. He certainly didn’t get angry with her; his anger was reserved for Joseph.
And he was angry enough to execute Joseph, which presumably would have been well within the rights of a slave-owner whose slave was accused of sleeping with his wife. Instead, he throws him into the dungeon, where Joseph is immediately appointed to be the man in charge of the prisoners.
So these are Joseph’s in-laws. His father-in-law has lusted after him, and has lost his manhood as a result. His mother-in-law has lusted after him, and was instrumental in his incarceration. And now Joseph is married to their daughter. Can anybody say “dysfunction”?
Interestingly, although Potiphar’s wife has all the characteristics of a lying snake, the Torah suggests that she did not start off that way; that her original intentions were sound. According to Rashi, based on the Midrash, the Torah deliberately juxtaposed “the incident of Potiphar’s wife with the incident of Tamar, to tell you that just as that the incident of Tamar was meant for the sake of heaven, so too the incident of Potiphar’s wife was meant for the sake of heaven. For she saw through her astrology that she was destined to raise children from Joseph, but she did not know whether they would be from her or from her daughter.” See Rashi, Genesis, 39:1.
Accordingly to this, perhaps Potiphar’s wife was actually relieved by Joseph’s marriage to her daughter; now, at least, Joseph’s sons would be her grandchildren, if not her children.
To be continued.