Parshat Vayeishev 5768
When what you read in the news and what you learn in the weekly Parsha intersect, it is important to pause and notice. The theme of gender abuse continues both in the U.S. media and in Parshat Vayeishev. In this week’s Parsha however, the victim is no innocent young girl as was the case with Dinah last week, nor is the perpetrator a male sexual predator like Shechem was. This time the perpetrator is a powerful woman, Ms. Pottifar, wife of one of the most influential men in Egypt. The victim is Yoseif, her dashing, seventeen-year-old slave, and as the only Jew in Egypt, a member of an unprotected minority.
Ms. Pottifar flagrantly propositions Yoseif (Bereishit 39:7). After he politely but firmly declines, she continues to harass him daily (39:10), dressing in different alluring outfits every morning and evening. He argues to her how much of a betrayal of his master and her husband it would be were he to agree; she volunteers to poison her husband. Eventually, she assaults Yoseif, grabbing him by the garment (39:12) and dragging him to her bedroom. He slips out of his garment and flees outside. He leaves his garment in her hands aware that she could use it to incriminate him.
The decision to resist Ms. Pottifar’s pressure was not a natural one for a young man far from home and unknown in Egyptian society. Even the Midrash is amazed by Yoseif’s strength of character and self-discipline:
אפשר ײוסף בן י"ז שנה היה, עומד בכל חומו, ולא היה עושה את הדבר הזה? (ילקו"ש רמז קמ"ה)
“Is it (humanly) possible that Yoseif, a seventeen-year-old young man at the height of his passion and energy, could restrain himself from doing this?”
For a moment Yoseif was by no means sure he would or could resist her. His hesitancy is suggested artistically in the musical note, the shalshelet, by which the word וימאן – and he refused her – is chanted in the Torah reading. The shalshelet is a very long and whining note, illustrating that it was with reluctance that Yosief refused her.
In those moments of hesitancy Yosif engaged in moral dialogue with Ms. Pottifar, and more importantly, with himself. The Midrash records his conversation which is only subtly hinted at in the words of the Chumash:
“Hashem tends to appear to my father, grandfather and great-grandfather at night,” he reasoned. “What would happen if He were to appear to me at the very moment I was engaged in impurity?”
She, in turn, argued against that God is neither present not concerned with what they do. Dragging him to her bedroom she veiled the eyes of the idol she kept there. “Unlike your idol,” Yoseif said to her, “Hashem is in fact omnipresent and omniscient.” He argues the rational case against their intended act of immorality (“it would be an abuse of my authority in this household”), he argues the ethical case (“he keeps nothing away from me except for you, his wife”), he argues the moral case (”and how could I do this evil?”). Still these arguments aren’t enough to convince him to restrain his passion. Finally, he introduces his faith: “…and I would sin against God.” This seems to settle it for him.
But not really. Even after concluding that succumbing to her (and to his own) desire was rationally, ethically, morally and religiously wrong, he still decides to go ahead with the affair. According to one Talmudic view, Yoseif went to the Pottifar residence (39:11) on a day when all members of the household were out for a religious celebration except for Ms. Pottifar who had feigned illness. Yoseif knew that he would be alone with her and could have avoided the encounter by not going to the house that day. But he chose to go nevertheless. Like Dinah who chose to go out without company to mingle with the men and women of Shechem, so Yoseif chose to be alone with his master’s wife. Neither Dinah nor Yoseif are held in the slightest way responsible for what happened later, they were both victims of abuse and in no way complicit in those actions, nevertheless both are mentioned for knowingly taking unnecessary risk. So, if Yoseif intentionally went into the house to be alone with her, what happened to change his mind and cause him to risk his career and his life by fleeing outside instead of succumbing to her as he had intended?
Rationalization can overpower even brilliant and upright individuals. Yoseif rationalized away every logical, ethical and religious objection to a relationship with Ms. Pottifar. He even justified it in his mind as potentially virtuous. He had prophetic insight that his children would be descended from this woman, clearly then, he reasoned, her insistence on having a relationship with him was more than serendipitous. It must be God Himself “playing Cupid” with his true basheirt (soul-mate)! This must be hashgacha (meant to be) he concludes, and enters the house.
Then, after his agonizing deliberation culminating in his decision to enter the house to rendezvous with Ms. Pottifar, he is taken by surprise: He sees an image of his father’s disapproving face. “We just don’t do that kind of thing,” he seemed to be saying. There was no need for logic, ethics, morality or religion. He had clarity. This would be a betrayal not only of Pottifar’s trust and Yoseif’s faith; it would be a betrayal of his own essence, his very identity, the core of his soul. This decision was not one to be made in his head or his gut. Head and gut were both misleading him. This was a decision to be made in his heart and in his soul. And in his heart and soul there was no debate – there never is. Dilemma and moral debate arise in our heads, and intensify when our heads and our guts disagree. Our hearts and souls, on the other hand, know with absolute clarity what is right and what is wrong; dilemma and debate are foreign to our souls. In his moment of moral crisis, Yoseif accessed his soul through his unbreakable link with his father and their family tradition.
Once Yoseif had clarity that succumbing to Ms. Pottifar would undermine and erode his very identity and pollute the core of his being, no price was too high to pay to protect his essence. He knows he will lose his privileged position and probably his life. There is nothing to think about. His course is clear no matter what the consequences. He needs to get away from this abusive woman. He needs to flee from her house – and he does.
The story is far from over. Not only does Ms. Pottifar report to the household and her husband that Yoseif attempted to rape her (showing them his garment as proof that he fled when she screamed), but she persuaded many other wives of the royal household to cry “me too!” We must wonder then, why does Pottifar not have Yoseif executed for attempted rape, why is he sentenced only to prison?
Out of the pages of the Midrash, we are taken by romantic surprise. The real heroine of the story appears on the scene. One young girl was aware of Ms. Pottifar’s abuse of Yoseif and her deception. This girl refused to stand by and watch a servant being executed for something he didn’t do. She was going to blow the whistle, and she did. She, brought the truth to the attention of Mr. Pottifar who commuted Yoseif’s sentence to imprisonment.
This girl’s name was Osnat, the Pottiferras’ adopted daughter. They adopted her as a baby who had been born out of wedlock and raised her as their own. Osnat was the daughter that Dinah had conceived from her union with her rapist, Shechem. Osnat saved her uncle’s life without even knowing they were related.
Yoseif’s prophetic vision that his children would be descended from Ms. Pottifar was right – almost. They would actually be descended from Ms. Pottifar’s adopted daughter, they would not be biological descendants of the Pottifars. Later, when Yoseif emerges from prison and achieves notoriety as viceroy of Egypt, he marries Osnat. She becomes the mother of Ephraim and Menashe by whose names we bless our sons every Friday night and have done since their grandfather Yaacov established this practice.
What then, is the Torah-framework by which to have the conversation around gender abuse?
- Abusive behavior and bullying has always existed and probably always will. This doesn’t make it acceptable in any way at all and we should fight it. Nevertheless, it can be helpful to develop a measure of resilience against the abuse of others (other than gender abuse) when it is not physically harmful. As Jews, we have learned over centuries how to be resilient to abuse. If we became offended and emotionally bruised by every anti-Semitic comment, we would not survive with our pride intact.
- Gender abuse is different. Gender abuse strikes at the essence of the other, undermines who they are at their core, exploits the victim’s vulnerability for the perpetrator’s personal pleasure or gain, and threatens the victim from ever exposing it. Gender abuse has no place in civilized society, ever.
- Fear is usually the weapon of gender abuse. Victims generally fear resisting perpetrators or reporting them. This fear may be of the perpetrator’s physical strength or positional. If you have power over others, heighten your level of self-awareness when you interact with members of the opposite gender. This applies in families, businesses, politics, government, entertainment, colleges and schools as well as in places of religious worship.
- The violator has power over the victim, but may not necessarily be a male. Powerful women (like Ms. Pottifar) can also abuse men who fear displeasing them. Gender abuse is not about men or about women. It is about the interface between men and women when power is at play. Be on the alert for it whether it potentially impacts you or others. In the end, we are all impacted by cultures that tolerate any form of power abuse, especially this one.
- At times, but by no means always, victims may be able to avoid risk of violation or abuse (as Dinah and Yoseif could have done). Just as we keep away from potentially dangerous neighborhoods no matter how inconvenient or even costly this might be, you can choose to keep away from individuals or environments known to tolerate abusive behavior. This doesn’t mean you should accept that behavior as a reality of these people or industries. There are ways to fight toxic cultures and immoral behaviors, but you don’t need to risk your dignity in the process. The protective but invisible barriers imposed by the laws of Yichud are designed specifically to mitigate the risks of gender abuse; study and apply them.
- Even in cases where victims might have been able to avoid the risk of abuse, never identify them as part of the problem. The violator, and the violator alone, is the criminal. (Shechem is given the death sentence by Dinah’s brothers; Dinah is not rebuked for her choice.)
- Standing by and passively tolerating gender abuse makes us part of the problem. Intervene whenever you can. (Dinah’s brothers did not only kill Shechem, they killed the community who refused to punish acts of violation and stood by when Shechem raped Dinah.)
- Career, money, social acceptability and shame should never be a reason to tolerate abuse of the type that undermines who you are at your core. As hard as it is, if there is no other way to avoid it, walk away from any job, career opportunity or social situation that requires you to accept gender abuse with the territory. (Yoseif gave up his career and risked his life to walk away from Ms. Pottifar.)
- When aware of gender abuse, speak up. You owe it to potential victims to warn them. You owe it to your organization, industry or just to society to cleanse them of this infectious and dangerous moral sickness. (Shimon and Levi intervene in the case of Shechem and Dinah. Osnat speaks up.)
Every word of Torah, when accessed with sanctity and applied with intelligence, can transform and elevate individuals and societies. These parshiot come at a timely moment when American society is struggling to come to terms with its dark side; a side that has existed for decades or more, but never exposed. Now is a time to begin a journey of healing. But to heal, as in any process of Teshuva, we must engage in the process of building cultures for the future that are hostile to abusiveness and intolerant of hate. Both within our own communities and institutions, and in wider society we must embrace gender, cultural and ethnic diversity in ways that are authentic to who we are and to what we believe. It is from such diversity of thought, opinion and being that great ideas and solutions emerge.