Joseph the Righteous One
I have always been deeply curious as to why—of all the characters in the Torah—the Rabbis attributed to Joseph the appellation, “ha-Tzadik” (the righteous). No other character in all of the Tanakh is given this attribute by the Rabbis. And yet, what was so “righteous” or compelling about this “hero” who takes the center stage for these last four parashiyot of the book of Genesis?
I have never found him such a sympathetic character. But clearly the Rabbis must have seen something in his person or his development that warranted remembering him as “ha-Tzadik.” The fact that Joseph refused the sexual advances of his boss’s wife seems to be a very low bar for “righteousness.” There must be something more substantial?!
We are introduced to Joseph as a boy of seventeen who brings “bad reports” of his brothers’ behavior to their father (37:2), slighting them in order to win the love of his father.
And then, of course, there are his dreams! To say that Joseph was a deeply self-involved young man is only the beginning of the story. Joseph almost makes Narcissus look like a sensitive soul!
One might have thought that being sold into slavery by his brothers would have forced Joseph to reevaluate his preoccupation with self-love and his inability to be sensitive to others. And yet, this experience seems to have changed Joseph very little at first.
Rashi, echoing the Midrash in Bereshit Rabbah, explains why, in the middle of the narrative about Joseph’s experience in Egypt, the text comments, “Now Joseph was well built and handsome” (39:6).
As soon as he saw himself a ruler [in Potiphar’s house], he began to pamper himself with food and drink and curl his hair. Said God, “Your father sits in mourning and you preoccupy yourself with curling your hair?! I will send the bear [that is, now I will send Potiphar’s wife] after you!”
Rashi’s words not only explain how the moral challenge of Potiphar’s wife’s seduction came about, but, I believe, they also respond to some emotional dissonance felt by the reader of our story. Jacob is in such pain that “he refused to be comforted,” saying he will go to his death mourning for his son (37:31), and in the meantime, Joseph is living the highlife (39:1-6)! In Rashi’s comment the reader hears his or her own voice asking, “Joseph, what are you doing?! Are you tragically still that narcissistic young man?”
Joseph has power and has gained a measure of success in Egypt. Why doesn’t Joseph send a message to his father? Surely, he knows how much pain his absence has caused Jacob.
On one level, we understand, as Joseph will remind us at the end of the story, that Joseph’s experiences in Egypt were all part of a Divine plan: “Now, do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you” (45:4).
Yet on another plane, this is a story about a son and brothers and a father. How could Joseph allow his father to suffer? Moreover, if everything was God’s plan and there was no room for individual moral fortitude or emotional sensitivity, then why did Joseph earn the title, “the Righteous?” Where is the personal growth and transformation that the reader is hoping for?
We have to wait until the end of our story. We are told at the beginning of chapter 48 that Joseph was informed of his father’s illness. It is at this moment in the narrative that the Rabbis locate Joseph’s emotional transformation and self-growth. The Midrash in the collection known as Pesikta Rabbati asks: Why did Joseph need to be told that his father was ill? Surely if he visited him frequently, he would have known! The Midrash uses this (perhaps forced) moment to identify Joseph’s greatness:
The purpose of this is, however, to make known to you his righteousness (Tzedko), that he did not want to be alone with his father so that he should not say to him, “What did your brothers do to you?,” and Jacob would be prompted to curse them.
As the Ramban will suggest based on this Midrash, when the Rabbis read this story, they concluded that Jacob was never told of the deeds of the brothers. Perhaps, he knew, but Joseph—the once tattle-telling son—never related the brothers’ deeds to their father. Had Jacob known about the sins of the brothers, the Rabbis imagine, the brothers would have begged Jacob for his forgiveness before he died.
This is the moment the Rabbis were waiting for. Joseph is able to transcend his narcissistic self. Joseph imagines the pain that it would cause his father to learn what his sons had done to Joseph and how they were willing to cause Joseph and Jacob such pain. Sure, by telling his father he would have his revenge, but at such a cost! Joseph is able to put aside his pain and desire for revenge and he forgives his brothers. He has muted his own desire for revenge because he knows the pain it will cause his father.
The Rabbis use this moment in the story to redeem Joseph. They adopt him as the paradigm of a man who is able to transcend self-involvement and extreme insensitivity for others and transform himself into a man who subsumes some of his feelings for the feelings of others. Joseph is no longer the “hair-curling,” young, narcissistic adolescent; he has emerged into a model of a human being, who can grow and transcend an earlier iteration of his self. It is in this way that Joseph offers us a path to true “righteousness.”
Rabbi David Hoffman
The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.