The Torah tells in Parashat Lekh-Lekha of Avraham’s refusal to accept the king of Sedom’s offer to keep for himself the city’s possessions which he had rescued. Avraham had led a daring offensive against the four armies that captured the people of Sedom and seized their property, and it was natural for the city’s king to grant Avraham the right to keep the assets which he retrieved. Avraham, however, refused, proclaiming, “I have raised my hand to the Supreme God…[on oath[ that I shall not take from even a thread to a shoestring from all that is yours…” (14:22-23).
The Ba’al Ha-turim observes that the word “harimoti” – “I have raised” – used in this verse appears in just one other instance in the Torah. Later in Sefer Bereishit (39:15), the Torah tells of the false allegations made by Potifar’s wife against Yosef, whom she accused of attempting to rape her, when he in fact resisted her sexual advances. She alleged that she shouted in response to his assault, and “when he heard that I raised my voice [harimoti koli] and called out,” he fled. The Ba’al Ha-turim notes the word “harimoti” used by Potifar’s wife in this context, and he finds it significant that it appears only in that context and in Avraham’s proclamation refusing to take any of Sedom’s property. To explain the connection between these two contexts, the Ba’al Ha-turim writes that this parallel corroborates the Midrashic tradition (Bereishit Rabba 85:2) that Potifar’s wife had “altruistic” motives in attempting to lure Yosef to intimacy. The Midrash comments that Potifar’s wife saw through astrology that she and Yosef would share a descendant, and she therefore saw it as her sacred obligation to initiate an intimate relationship with him in order to realize this destiny. (In the end, this prediction materialized through her daughter, who married Yosef.) The Ba’a Ha-turim thus comments that the unique term “harimoti” shared by Avraham’s pronouncement to the king of Sedom and Potifar’s wife’s accusation against Yosef alludes to the fact that Potifar’s wife acted with altruistic motives, just as Avraham was driven by his idealistic principles to decline the opportunity to become wealthy by keeping the property of Sedom.
Rav Chaim Elazary, in his Darkhei Chayim, observes that the Ba’al Ha-turim here makes a startling comparison – likening Avraham’s piety expressed through his refusal to accept an enormous fortune offered to him, and Potifar’s wife sincerity in initiating an adulterous relationship. We would be hard pressed to find two more different examples of “sincerity,” of decisions made with pure motives. Although Chazal attribute Potifar’s wife’s seduction to altruistic motives, can these motives have been anywhere near as pure as Avraham’s idealism in turning down the offer made by Sedom’s king?
Evidently, Rav Elazary writes, the Ba’al Ha-turim precisely seeks to warn that even the purest, sincerest of motives can lead to the most grievous wrongful actions. A person can have the sincerity of Avraham Avinu yet still end up committing nefarious sins like that of Potifar’s wife. Moreover, we might add, the sincerer and more idealistic a person is in charting his or her course, the lower the chances are of that person’s conscience intervening to discourage him or her from committing the act, and the more likely the person is to commit the act with determination and fervor. The Ba’al Ha-turim here reminds us that pure intentions do not necessarily produce pure actions, that we must carefully scrutinize our decisions to ensure that we not only want and intend to live and act the right way, but actually live and act the right way.