Tamar and Potiphar's Wife: Making Good Intentions Last
Vayeshev (Genesis 37-40 )
In Vayeshev, the Torah juxtaposes two seemingly unconnected stories. The first is the incident between Judah and Tamar: (1) The Torah tells us that Judah's first-born son married Tamar, but he died young; his brother Onan then married Tamar based on the mitzvah of yibum (2) and he also died. At that point Judah was reluctant to allow his third son, Sheilah, to marry Tamar. When she realized that Judah had no intentions of allowing Sheila to marry Tamar, she took matters into her own hands, and seduced Yehuda without him realizing her identity. She became pregnant with twins, and when this became apparent Judah, not realizing that he was the father, decreed that she should be punished by death, because she was forbidden from relations due to fact that she was, according to Jewish law, connected to Sheila through the bond of yibum. (3) As she was about to be executed she revealed evidence that Judah was the father of these babies in the womb, but she refused to explicitly embarrass him by exposing him. In Yehuda's righteousness he admitted his role and she was saved.(4) One of the sons born to her, Peretz, would be the progenitor of the seed of King David and ultimately, the Messiah.
Immediately after this story the Torah returns to the narrative of Joseph and his descent to Egypt.(5) He found himself as a slave in the house of the wealthy Potiphar and immediately found favor in his eyes. Unfortunately he also found favor in the eyes of Potiphar's wife who, the Torah tells us, made great efforts to seduce him. Finally, when everyone else was out of the house, she made a great attempt to finally subdue Yosef and she nearly succeeded, but ultimately, in his righteousness he was able to withstand this great test. Sadly, Potiphar's wife claimed that Yosef had tried to seduce her and as a result he was thrown into prison, where he languished for 12 long, painful years. On the surface Potiphar's wife seems like a purely negative character, however, the Sages reveal to us that it the truth is not so straightforward.
Rashi brings the Midrash that questions the juxtaposition between the story involving Tamar and that of Potiphar's wife.(6) It comes to teach us that just as Tamar's intentions were pure in that she wanted to have descendants through the righteous Judah, so too were those of Potiphar's wife: It explains that she saw through the stars that descendants were destined to come from her seed and that of Joseph. What she did not realize is that Yosef would later marry her daughter, Osnat,(7) and in that way the stars' prediction came true. Thus the Midrash is telling us that she actually had the noble intentions of ensuring that she did indeed produce descendants through Joseph.
Given the Midrash's explanation of her intentions how do we understand the course of events that took place as a result of her efforts to win over Joseph? When he rejected her overtures she vindictively tried to have him framed and killed. How could it be that she initially had such righteous intent and a moment later sought to have an innocent man put to death?
Rav Yerucham Levovits explains in the name of the Alter of Kelm that Potiphar's wife did indeed begin with good intentions similar to Tamar.(8) However, the difference between the two women emerged when their original plans did not meet fruition. As mentioned above, Tamar, on becoming pregnant, was judged to have transgressed the accepted laws of morality and was sentenced to death. At this point it would have been quite understandable for her to feel that she could announce that Judah was the father of these babies, however, she demonstrated her righteous intentions by refusing to explicitly incriminate him and thereby cause him tremendous embarrassment. Indeed her actions were so praiseworthy that the Gemara learns from here that a person should rather allow themselves to be thrown into a fiery furnace than to publicly embarrass someone.(9) Thus we see that Tamar's initial pure intentions continued throughout and even when things went terribly wrong she refused to compromise her behavior.
In contrast Potiphar's wife's pure intentions did not endure. In her case, when Yosef continually refused her she could have realized that perhaps her actions were not desirable. Yet she persisted, and when she made her final, great effort Joseph still rejected her. At that point the nefarious part of her character emerged as she sought to vindictively punish Joseph for his steadfastness. Had her intentions been as pure as those of Tamar then she would have maintained her dignity and realized that perhaps, her daughter and not herself was destined to be the mother of Joseph's children.
The examples of Potiphar's wife and Tamar teach us an important lesson. There are times when a person embarks on a certain course of action with pure motives in mind. He may be striving to improve a relationship or succeed in a business endeavor, or in an area related to mitzvah observance. However, it is not uncommon for events to not go according to plan, and it is at that point that a person's true intentions will emerge. It is at this point where Tamar and Potiphar's wife diverged; Tamar maintained her moral standing, whilst Potiphar's wife did not. May we merit to emulate Tamar's purity of intent through all the vicissitudes that face us.
1. Bereishis, Ch.38.
2. Translated as Levirate marriage, whereby if a man marries a woman and then dies without having borne any children, there is a Mitzva for a remaining brother to marry the sister, despite the fact that normally it is forbidden to marry one's brother's wife. It should be noted that even before the Torah was given, the Patriarchs and their children kept Mitzvot on a voluntary basis.
3. There are numerous questions on this story, but this essay will focus on the role of Tamar in the incident.
4. Tamar was permitted to Judah through yibum - after the Torah was given, yibum was restricted to one's brother, but before the Torah was given, the dead man's father could marry the widow. There is much discussion amongst the commentaries on this point but the full legal discussion of this topic is beyond the scope of this essay.
5. Bereishit, Ch.39.
6. Bereishit Rabbah, 85:2, quoted by Rashi, Bereishit, 39:1.
7. There are sources in the Rabbinic literature that say that Osnath was in fact the daughter of Deena and Shechem, but that she was adopted by Potiphar.
8. Daas Torah, Bereishis, pp. 227-8.
9. Sotah, 10b.