The Torah in Parashat Vayeishev tells of Yosef’s experiences as a servant in the home of Potifar, whose wife attempted to seduce him. We read that on one occasion, when nobody else was in the home, Yosef came “to do his work” and Potifar’s wife grabbed his garment. Yosef ran out of the home, leaving his garment in her hands.
The Gemara in Masekhet Sota (36b) cites a view among the Amora’im that interprets the phrase “la’asot melakhto” (“to do his work”) in this verse to mean that Yosef came to Potifar’s home with the intention of sleeping with his master’s wife. After having refused her daily advances for a long period of time, Yosef had finally succumbed to temptation and decided to commit the sin. It was only at the last moment that he desisted.
The Maharlbach (Rav Levi ben Chaviv), in one of his responsa (126), brings a question he was asked concerning this view cited in the Gemara, which appears to contrast sharply with Chazal’s general approach when evaluating righteous Biblical figures. For the most part, Chazal tend to cast the words and actions of these figures in a favorable light. One striking example is Aharon’s response to the people’s demand for a new leader at Mount Sinai: he is the one who conceived of the idea to make a statue, and he personally fashioned the golden calf. Yet, Chazal exonerate Aharon, explaining that he intended to stall until Moshe returned. When it comes to Yosef, however, even though the Torah says clearly that he came to innocently do his work like on any other day, one Amora reads this to mean that he planned to commit a grave sin, refraining only at the last moment. How does this reading fit into the general tendency to cast righteous Biblical figures in a positive light?
The Maharlbach answers that this interpretation of “la’asot melakhto” does not, in fact, diminish from Yosef’s greatness in any way; to the contrary, it should lead us to even greater appreciation of Yosef’s self-restraint. After all, according to this view, Yosef did not sin, but rather intended and desired to sin. The need to struggle and withstand pressures and temptations does not reflect spiritual weakness. Yosef is known as “Yosef Ha-tzaddik” not because he did not need to struggle, but because he struggled successfully. And thus the Gemara’s comment is fully consistent with its pattern of underscoring the greatness of our righteous spiritual heroes. We should admire Yosef even more by recognizing the enormity of the struggle that he waged that day when he fled from Potifar’s wife. And we should gain encouragement and inspiration from the knowledge that struggle is part and parcel of the religious experience, that pious devotion to God does not come easily, and that we cannot expect to always be naturally and effortlessly drawn to being the people who we want to be.