SALT - Wednesday, 18 Kislev 5778 - December 6, 2017

  • Rav David Silverberg
            We read in Parashat Vayeishev of Yosef’s travails after being brought as a slave to Egypt.  He served for a high-ranking Egyptian official, Potifar, whose wife felt attracted to Yosef and unsuccessfully tried seducing him.  After Yosef repeatedly resisted her advances, she falsely claimed that he had tried to assault her.  Upon hearing his wife’s charges, Potifar sent Yosef to prison.  The Torah writes, “Yosef’s master took him and placed him in the prison, the place where the king’s prisoners were held, and he was there in the prison” (39:20).
            As a number of commentators noted, the final clause of this verse – “he was there in the prison” – seems superfluous.  Once we are told that Yosef was sent to prison, we quite obviously understand that “he was there in the prison.”  Why did the Torah emphasize this point?
            The Radak explains this phrase to mean that Potifar did not second-guess his decision to imprison Yosef.  One might have assumed that given the level of trust that Yosef had earned while working for Potifar, as the Torah earlier describes (39:3-6), Potifar would not keep Yosef in prison.  After imprisoning Yosef in response to his wife’s accusations, Potifar could have been expected to change his mind about Yosef and realize that the charges were false.  The Torah therefore emphasizes that “Yosef was there in the prison” even after the passage of time, because Potifar accepted his wife’s fabricated allegations about Yosef.
            In a somewhat similar vein, Netziv writes in his Ha’amek Davar commentary that the Torah emphasized the permanence of Yosef’s jail sentence.  Later, we read of the butler and baker who were temporarily sent to the prison where Yosef was held, and kept there until their cases were decided.  This shows that the prison was used not only for convicted criminals, but also for defendants awaiting trial.  By emphasizing, “he was there in the prison,” the Torah clarifies that Yosef was sentenced to prison, and was not sent there temporarily while his case was being decided.
            A chassidic reading of this phrase appears in Rav Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev’s Kedushat Levi.  Rav Levi Yitzchak reads in this verse an allusion to Yosef’s mental condition in response to this devastating turn of events, his attitude of acceptance and resignation.  Often, when we find ourselves in an undesirable situation, we define our condition purely as a burden from which we seek freedom, and our entire attitude towards the situation is characterized by negativity and frustration.  When Yosef was thrown into jail, Rav Levi Yitzchak writes, “he was there in the prison” – he resigned himself to the fact that this was his condition, and there was nothing he could do at the moment to change it.  He was certainly not happy about the situation – and, as we read later, he endeavored to secure his freedom by asking the butler to petition on his behalf after being reinstated – but he resigned himself to the reality that this was his condition, and decided to make the most of the situation until it changed.  Indeed, as the subsequent verses relate, Yosef assumed responsibility for his fellow inmates and became an assistant warden of sorts in the prison.  Once he told himself that “he was there in the prison,” that this was, for whatever reason, where he was destined to remain for the next period in his life, he was able to make the most of his condition and achieve to the best of his ability under the most undesirable circumstances which he was now forced to endure.