The ultimate test that Joseph faced, considered perhaps the greatest challenge faced by anyone in the entire Bible, was that of Potiphar’s wife.
A quick reminder of the story…..
Joseph is a teenage slave in Egypt. Cut off from his family, he has no support system. His master’s wife is the most beautiful woman in all of Egypt and has married for position, not love. And this stereotypical, unloved Mrs Robinson of antiquity, falls head over heels for the handsome young slave in her home; and will stop at nothing to have him. It’s surely worthy of a Netflix Original.
Repeatedly, Joseph rebuts her advances. Until, finally, she contrives for them to be alone in the house together and she literally throws herself at him….a teenager, away from family, friends and all means of support. He could so easily have fallen into her arms and got away with it. And yet, he said ‘no’. But the Rabbis do tell us that had it not been for a vision of Joseph’s father, Jacob, appearing before him, he would have succumbed. At the end of the day, we are all human after all.
As an aside, I say that he could have ‘got away with it’ but that would only have been in his own mind. I’ve been around long enough to realise that one never ‘gets away with it’. Relationships are always much more complicated than sex alone and I’ve seen so many times that the chickens always, ALWAYS come home to roost in the end.
It’s interesting to me, though, that the Torah sees the most challenging of all tests to be in the area of sexual relations. I guess maybe it’s not surprising, because each of us very well knows the power of the animal that exists inside of us. But it’s interesting, nevertheless, that the Torah points it out. Not an existential challenge of faith, not suffering, not honesty or integrity….but the base animalistic challenge of sex can often be the greatest challenge of all. For even the most enlightened of human beings.
That should humble us, firstly, lest we believe that we have risen so far above our fellow creatures in this world. We most certainly have not. Over and over again, the most likely circumstance to bring down politicians, clergy and businesspeople, monarchs and great lords alike, as well as the ‘simple man’ on the street, is sex, the basest of animal instincts.
I could easily wax lyrical with puritanism, over here, most especially as it might be expected of an Orthodox rabbi, but I actually want to take the reverse perspective.
Given that even Joseph, the only man in the Bible accoladed as ‘the righteous’, would have succumbed without external intervention, I think we need to be very understanding of human frailty. I’m not trying to justify the mistakes that people make – most especially when others are hurt in the process. However, we need to be careful not to be so quick to judge those who make mistakes that we may well make ourselves in similar circumstances. As the ‘Good Book’ says, ‘let he who is without sin cast the first stone’. I, for one, do my best to remember that I am very human. And that others are just like me. I make mistakes and so does everyone else. I get lost in the face of life’s challenges and so does everyone else. And, so, I’m all for giving people a chance to take responsibility for their mistakes and move past them, rather than condemning them unconditionally, even if only in the courtroom of my own mind.
To be clear, I’m not saying anything that is wrong is anything other than wrong. I’m saying that people do wrong things and when we give them a chance to take responsibility for what they have done and pick themselves up, rather than condemning them, they usually do better than when we come down harshly with self-righteous puritanical ‘values’.
Parsha in a Nutshell
This is the famous story of Joseph and his brothers selling him into slavery in Egypt. Favouritism, jealousy, passion, lust and betrayal. It’s all in there with much, much more. Well worth a read. This week’s portion and the next are my absolute favourites.