Yosef – From Potifar’s House to Prison

  • Rav Amnon Bazak

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This shiur is dedicated in memory of Israel Koschitzky zt"l, 
whose yahrzeit falls on the 19th of Kislev.  
May the world-wide dissemination of Torah through the VBM be a fitting tribute to a man whose lifetime achievements exemplified the love of Eretz Yisrael and Torat Yisrael.
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  1. “It was not you who sent me here, but God”

In studying the events that Yosef experiences from the time that he is sold until he is reunited with his father, we are faced with the question of whether these events are significant in and of themselves, or whether everything had to happen solely in order that the Divine plan of the exile in Egypt would ultimately be realized.

Yosef himself, after he has revealed his identity to his brothers, tells them:

“And now, it was not you who went me here, but God, and He has made me a father for Pharaoh and a lord for all of his household and a ruler throughout the land of Egypt.” (Bereishit 45:8)

Yosef himself has no idea that the ultimate Divine purpose does not end with him becoming the ruler over Egypt and having the ability to provide for his entire family. He has no way of knowing that the greater Divine plan was already decreed in the time of his great-grandfather, Avraham:

“Know with certainty that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, and they shall enslave them and afflict them for four hundred years.” (15:13)

All that has happened to Yosef is part of the realization of that plan, which will bring Yaakov and his sons to Egypt to begin a lengthy period of exile.

In light of this background, one might argue that there is no inherent significance to the particular events that led to this outcome. However, God has many different ways of operating, and the possibilities for arriving at the same end point are without number. Hence, it is reasonable to posit that each step of the way that Yosef journeys has its own special significance that we can try to understand within the broader context of the story as a whole.

We will focus here on two stages of the story: Potifar’s house and the prison. Surprisingly, these two scenes are constructed in a similar and parallel manner.

As a basis for understanding the parallel, it should be noted that Yosef’s experiences appear to be related to two areas in which he behaved improperly while growing up in his father’s house. The first is his negative reporting about his brothers to his father; the second concerns his recounting of his dreams to his brothers, thereby arousing their jealousy and hatred. Notably, nowhere in his description of his dreams is there any mention of God’s Name, nor does Yosef describe the situations in the dreams as being brought about in any way by God’s hand.

  1. “And sin against God”

The first station that Yosef arrives at in Egypt is Potifar’s house, as recorded in chapter 39.

A literary phenomenon that we may note at the outset is the intensive use of the word “va-yehi” (and it was) in this chapter; it appears no less than 15 times within 23 verses, more than any other chapter in Tanakh.[1] The word “va-yehi” expresses the unique sequence of events, involving a great number of details that combine to produce the situation in the wake of which Yosef ends up in prison. This intensifies our awareness of God’s hidden (and sometimes even revealed) intervention.

This intervention is given explicit expression in our chapter in two realms: Yosef’s own success and the flourishing of Potifar’s household under his stewardship.

In describing Yosef’s success while working in Potifar’s house, the text mentions God’s involvement:

And the Lord was with Yosef, and he was a successful man, and he was in the house of his master, the Egyptian. And his master saw that the Lord was with him and that the Lord made all that he did to prosper in his hand. And Yosef found favor in his sight, and served him, and he made him overseer over his house, and all that he had he put into his hand. (Bereishit 39:2-4)

Yosef’s extraordinary ability is so apparent that even Potifar himself takes note, appointing him to the most senior position in his house. At this second stage, God’s involvement is expressed in the blessing that is bestowed on all that Potifar has, once all is under Yosef’s control:

And it came to pass from the time that he had made him overseer over his house and over all that he hand, that the Lord blessed the Egyptian’s house for Yosef’s sake, and the blessing of the Lord was upon all that he hand in the house, and in the field. And he left all that he had in Yosef’s hand, and he knew nothing of what he had, save the bread which he ate… (39:5-6)

What is the purpose of this description? It seems that the image of Yosef’s rise in status and power is meant to recall his previous status in his father’s household:

And Yisrael loved Yosef more than all his children, for he was the son of his old age, and he made him a ketonet pasim. (37:3)

Once again, Yosef has achieved the highest position in a household and a unique relationship with the master of the house. It is precisely at this point that he faces a test that appears to be designed to assess whether Yosef has learned his lesson and now knows better than to allow his position to go to his head.

The test also involves the word “va-yehi,” which introduces a number of facts into the story:

And it was (va-yehi) that Yosef was good-looking and well-favored. And it was (va-yehi), after these things, that his master’s wife cast her eyes towards Yosef, and she said, “Lie with me.” (39:6-7)

Yosef’s good looks draw the attention of Potifar’s wife, who tries to seduce him. But now Yosef speaks in terms of God and his commitment to Him, which gives him the strength to overcome this temptation and not to be drawn astray by his power:

But he refused and said to his master’s wife, “Behold, my master knows not what is with me in the house, and he has committed all that he has to my hand; there is none greater in this house than I, neither has he kept back anything from me but you, because you are his wife. How than can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?” And it was (va-yehi), as she spoke to Yosef day by day, that he did not listen to her, to lie by her, or to be with her. (39:8-10)

But then comes the day when no-one is at home, and Potifar’s wife manages to grasp Yosef’s garment. Here again we are reminded of chapter 37, where the brothers stripped Yosef of the special coat that his father had made for him and which caused such offense to his brothers. This time, however, the stripping of his garment is part of Yosef’s display of valor as he passes the test. Attention should be paid to the frequency with which the word “bigdo” (his garment) appears:

And she caught him by his garment, saying, “Lie with me,” and he left his garment in her hand, and fled and went outside. And it came to pass, when she saw that he had left his garment in her hand and was fled outside, that she called to the men of her house and spoke to them, saying, “See, he has brought in a Hebrew to us to mock us; he came into me to lie with me, and I cried with a loud voice, and it came to pass, when he heard that I lifted up my voice and cried, that he left his garment with me, and fled, and went outside.” And she laid up his garment by her, until his lord came home. And she spoke to him according to these words, saying: “The Hebrew servant whom you have brought to us came in to me to have his sport with me. And it was, as I lifted up my voice and cried, that he left his garment with me, and fled outside.” (39:12-18)

In light of the detailed description of Yosef’s impressive self-control and his success in this test, it is rather surprising that there is no mention of any reward or Divine acknowledgment. On the contrary, the treacherous lie offered by Potifar’s wife convinces her husband, and Yosef is cast into prison:

And Yosef’s master took him and put him into the prison, a place where the king’s prisoners were bound, and he was there in the prison. (39:20)

Why does God allow the plot to develop as it does? Seemingly, this is a punishment for Yosef having brought negative reports (dibbatam ra’ah) about his brothers to his father. It appears that these reports included lies,[2] and now he is punished measure for measure. He experiences the helpless frustration of being the subject of evil reports when in fact he is innocent.

The tikkun that Yosef has achieved brought him to a higher spiritual level, but it seems that he still needed to go through this difficult experience in order for him to internalize what he had done to his brothers. All of this helped prepare him for their future reunification.

  1. “Interpretations belong to God”

At this stage, another circle opens. Even in the gloomy prison environment, Yosef once again climbs the social ladder, in a manner almost identical to his rise in the house of Potifar:

And the Lord was with Yosef, and showed him mercy, and gave him favor in the sight of the officer of the prison. And the officer of the prison committed to Yosef’s hand all the prisoners that were in the prison, and whatever they did there, he was the doer of it. The keeper of the prison did not look to anything that was under his hand, because the Lord was with him, and that which he did, the Lord caused it to prosper. (39:21-23)

For the third time in his life, Yosef is “starting at the bottom,” but soon finds himself rising to the top and becoming the central figure within his environment. As in Potifar’s house, the officer of the prison places everything under Yosef’s stewardship and feels that all is in safe hands. Once again, the text gives explicit mention and emphasis to God’s intervention and His causing Yosef to prosper.

This involvement relates to further events that combine, once again, to produce a unique situation:

And it was (va-yehi) after these things that the butler of the king of Egypt and his baker offended their lord the king of Egypt. And Pharaoh was angry with two of his officers, against the chief of the butlers and against the chief of the bakers. And he put them in custody in the house of the officer of the guard, into the prison, the place where Yosef was bound. And the officer of the guard charged Yosef with them, and he served them, and they continued a period in custody. (40:1-3)

At this precise timing, two royal servants are sent to the prison. Owing to their special status, they are treated with respect, and owing to Yosef’s evident capability, he is appointed as their personal attendant in the prison. He invites their confidence, he inquires after their welfare, and thus he hears of their dreams and proposes his interpretations.

In the story of Potifar’s wife, as we have seen, Yosef was tested in relation to his previous treatment of his brothers. Despite the tikkun that he had made, he still had to pay a price for having brought evil reports about them. In the story of the prison, the main subject is dreams, which suggests that this chapter relates to the story of Yosef’s own dreams.

As mentioned, the fact that Yosef recounted his dreams to his brothers is problematic in and of itself; in addition, in recounting them, he had made no mention of God, nor associated his interpretation in any way with the will of God. Now, upon hearing of the dreams of the butler and the baker, he corrects this:

And they said to them, “We have dreamed a dream, and there is no interpreter of it.” And Yosef said to them, “Do interpretations not belong to God? Tell me them, I pray you.” (40:8)

This response is quite surprising. At first glance, it seems that Yosef is telling them, “Only God can provide the interpretation – so tell me your dreams,” as though comparing himself to God! Clearly, this is not what he means. Radak explains:

Just as dreams belong to Him, and He causes people to dream and He shows them the future, so interpretations belong to Him, for He gives people the ability to understand the meaning of the dreams and their interpretation. For if there is no one who can interpret the dream, then the dreams served no purpose. (Radak, ad loc.)

Yosef offers his services as an interpreter of dreams, but only after emphasizing that this ability comes from God. This includes the understanding that the realization of the dreams is also dependent on God’s will. Thus, Yosef rectifies the previous recounting of his own dreams to his brothers, where he had made no mention of the fact that all comes from God.

Yosef interprets the dreams of the two royal servants. His interpretation is true, and Pharaoh acts just as he foretells:

And he [Pharaoh] restored the chief butler to his butlership again, and he gave the cup into Pharaoh’s hand, but he hanged the chief baker, as Yosef had interpreted to them. (40:21-22)

Nevertheless, this episode ends on a rather surprising note:

But the chief butler did not remember Yosef, but forgot him. (40:23)

Here again we note the similarity between the situation of Potifar’s house and the situation of the prison: both stages conclude with a blow to Yosef. And here again we must ask why this is so. After all, Yosef acted properly; he emphasized that both dreams and their interpretations come from God. Why does his proper behavior not produce any progress? Why does he languish in prison for another two years?

Rashi explains the forgetfulness of the royal baker as follows:

Because Yosef placed his faith in him, that he would remember him, he was forced to spend two more years in prison, as it is written, “Happy is the man who makes God his trust and does not turn to the proud (rehavim)…” (Tehillim 40:5). He should not have trusted the Egyptians, who are called “proud” (rahav) (Yeshayahu 30:7).

This explanation is difficult to accept. Is a person not expected to make some effort to extricate himself from a difficult situation? We might therefore propose a different perspective. In Yosef’s request to the royal butler, there seems to be one problematic phrase:

“But think of me when it will be well with you, and show kindness, I pray you, to me, and make mention of me to Pharaoh, and bring me out of this house, for I was stolen away out of the land of the Hebrew, and here also I have done nothing (ve-gam po lo asiti me’uma) that they should put me into the dungeon.” (40:14-15)

What does Yosef mean to add by the phrase, “Here also I have done nothing”? It seems that this second half of the verse refers back to the first half, where he mentions his past in the land of the Hebrews. What Yosef’s words suggest is that he still fails to recognize his own responsibility for what happened to him there. While it is true that he was “stolen away” from there, saying that he did “nothing” there represents some degree of denial. While his brothers are unquestionably responsible for selling him, Yosef cannot claim that he did nothing. Bringing his father evil reports about his brothers and telling them of his dreams surely counts for something.

Attention should be paid to the fact that the trials Yosef has endured – his service in Potifar’s house and the temptation of his wife – prepare us and ensure our full awareness of the significance of the word “me’uma.” From his history in Potifar’s house, we see that Yosef knows the qualifications that should surround this term. Concerning Potifar’s attitude towards him, we are told, “and [Potifar] knew nothing (ve-lo yada ito me’uma) of what he had, save the bread which he ate…” (Bereishit 39:6), and Yosef tells Potifar’s wife, “There is none greater in this house than I, neither has he kept back anything from me (ve-lo chasakh mimeni me’uma ki im otakh) but you, because you are his wife” (39:9).

In contrast, when he says, “Here also I have done nothing,” referring at the same time to his actions in the land of the Hebrews, he seems to say it with not the slightest reservation.

For this reason, he must remain in prison another two years, until the educational purpose for which he was sent to Potifar’s house and to the prison has had its effect.

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On his journey from the pit to the position of second-in-command to Pharaoh, Yosef passes through two stations: the house of Potifar and the prison. In both places, he is recognized by the most senior character, who places his full confidence in him. In both instances, his faith in God is tested and he withstands the test. In both cases, despite passing the test, he suffers some further punishment: from Potifar’s house where he withstood tremendous temptation he is sent to the prison, and after successfully interpreting the dreams of Pharaoh’s servants and already envisioning his freedom, he is abandoned for another two years in prison.

Both delays arise from the need for Yosef to understand what he caused to his brothers and to assume responsibility. This is necessary in order that, when the time comes, he will be reunited and reconciled with them, so that Yaakov’s family can be complete before he dies.

Translated by Kaeren Fish

 


[1]  With the exception of the first chapter of Bereishit, in which the word appears twenty times. However, twelve of these appearances are part of the fixed formula that appears on each of the six days of Creation – “And there was evening (va-yehi erev) and there was morning (va-yehi boker), such that, considering the frequency of this expression within the narrative itself, our chapter remains quite unique. 

[2]  See, for example, Mishlei 10:18 – “He who hides hatred uses lying (sheker) lips, and he who utters a slander (dibba) is a fool.”