A Model of Restraint

Vayehi By :  Lewis Warshauer Posted On Dec 29, 2001 / 5762

The end of the Book of Genesis also marks the end of the stories of Jacob and Joseph. Though separated for many years, their life—courses moved together. Both were younger sons who gained primacy over older brothers. Jacob, in his last days, is determined to bequeath to his son, Joseph, directly that which he had gotten from his father Isaac stealthily. He begins by adopting Joseph’s two sons as his own, thus giving Joseph the double portion of inheritance that usually goes to the oldest son. Jacob then gives his testament to all his sons. This testament is not a material bequest but rather a review and a prediction. Jacob speaks to his sons of their past and also to the future of their descendants. To Joseph, he gives his most elaborate blessing: The God of your father who helps you, and Shaddai who blesses you with blessings of heaven above, blessings of the deep that couch below, blessings of the breast and womb. The blessings of your father surpass the blessings of my ancestors, to the utmost bounds of the eternal hills. May they rest on the head of Joseph, on the brow of the elect of his brothers. (Genesis 49:25 —26)

What did Joseph do to deserve such a blessing? Immediately before these lines, Jacob describes Joseph with these words: b’not tzaada alei. (Genesis Rabbah 78:18) The midrash understands these words to mean “daughters”, “jewelry” and “look” and then proceeds to construct a tale. When Joseph began to rule Egypt, the princesses of Egypt peered through lattices and threw jewelry at him in order that he raise his eyes and look at them. Yet, he did not look at them. As a reward, his descendants, the daughters of Zelophehad, gained prominent mention in the Torah.

Whenever a midrash tells a story that departs from the Biblical text, it is always necessary to ask, “why?”. In this case, the midrash must be referring to an earlier episode in Joseph’s life, namely, his refusal to be seduced by Potiphar’s wife, also an Egyptian women. By praising Joseph as a model of restraint, as ruler in Egypt, he could have had all the women he wanted. But, he didn’t even look. He labels that restraint as a manly, even heroic, quality. Joseph already has the reputation of a provider and an administrator. In the rabbinic tradition, another virtue is added to, and completes, Joseph’s roster of qualities — self—control. The Sages expressed this same ideal in Pirkei Avot. Ben Zoma taught, “Who is mighty? He who conquers his impulses.” (Avot 4:1)

The publication and distribution of the Taste of Torah commentary has been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.