Vayeshev: So Here’s To You Mrs. Robinson/Mrs. Potifar

In this week’s Parshah (Torah Portion), Vayeishev (found in Bereishit/Genesis 38-40), we are introduced to Yoseph (Joseph), the second youngest of Yaakov’s (Jacobs) twelve sons. Despite being the second youngest, Yoseph has dreams of one day being the leader. This coupled with Yaakov favoring Yoseph causes feelings of resentment by the brothers towards Yoseph. His brothers eventually sell Yoseph into slavery in Egypt. While Yoseph is a slave, he rises to a high position as a slave. He becomes the Head Slave, in charge of the entire household of his master Potifar. Yoseph is described in the Torah as a very attractive man Bereishit/Genesis 39:6 “… Now Yoseph was handsome of form and handsome of appearance”. He is so attractive that in verse 7 the wife of Potifar tells Yoseph to have sex with her. Yoseph realizes the obvious moral wrong of agreeing to the indecent proposal of the wife of Potifar, and he refuses to have sex with her. Later on in verses 10-18 she continues to pursue Yoseph unsuccessfully, and eventually one day she tears his clothes off and Yoseph runs away. Presumably to save face and protect herself from what Yoseph might say and the potential reprisals her husband might take towards her, the wife of Potifar lies to the entire household and her husband, and says that Yoseph attempted to take advantage of her. Yoseph is then thrown in jail by Potifar.
When Yoseph refuses to have sex with the wife of Potifar for the first time the Hebrew word that the Torah uses to describe his refusal in Bereishit/Genesis 39:8 is Vayimain, and he refused. There is nothing particularly unusual about this word. However, there is something very unusual about the Trope (the musical note) that is on the word Vayimain. Every word in the Torah has a Trope, a note that indicates to the Torah reader how to chant a given word. Most of the notes repeat themselves many times on many different words. However, there are some notes that are very rare. One such note is the Shalshelet. The Shalshelet appears four times in the entire Torah. One of those times is on the word Vayimain.
The Trope expresses meaning in the Torah similar to the way music conveys meaning in a movie, play or an opera. When a Trope is used very infrequently, like the Shalshelet, you can be sure there is a point that the Torah wishes to bring out from this rare musical note. In order to understand the meaning of the Shalshelet you need to understand what the Shalshelet sounds like, and what it looks like. Click here so you can hear what a Shalshelet sounds like, it is a long extended note. The design of the note also indicates length. It looks like a vertical zigzag. Click here to see what a Shalshelet looks like, it is the picture in the left hand upper corner. Lastly, the word Shalshelet means chain, chains tend be long, they extend. What is the Shalshelet supposed to convey? What does it tell us about Yoseph’s refusal to have sex with the
wife of Potifar?
Let us examine the other three times the Shalshelet is used.
1. In Bereishit/Genesis 19:16 when Lot is delaying when the towns of Sdome and Amorah (Sodom and Gomorrah) are being destroyed by God for their immoral behavior. The Hebrew word is Vayitmama, Still he lingered, and the note is a Shalshelet.
2. In Bereishit/Genesis 24:12 when Eliezer the servant of Avraham (Abraham) is looking for a wife for the son of Avraham, Yitzchak (Isaac), he prays to God for success on his mission, the Shalshelet is used on the Hebrew word Vayomar, and he said.
3. In Vayikrah/Leviticus 8:23 when Moshe (Moses) is performing a Korban (a sacrifice) to install his brother Aharone (Aaron) as the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest. The Shalshelet is used on the Hebrew word Vayishchat, and he slaughtered it.
What does each of these situations have in common? In each case the person is delaying in some way what they are doing. Lot is delaying in leaving Sodom and Amorah. Maybe, he wishes to stay and be part of the immorality of those cities. Eliezer is delaying finding a wife for Yitzchak. Perhaps he is thinking to himself, “If I do not find a wife for Yitzchak maybe Avraham will have Yitzchak marry someone from my family and thus I might benefit finically linking myself to the fortune of Avraham”. Finally when Moshe is performing the Korban to install Aharone as the Kohain Gadol, perhaps Moshe is delaying in that after he is done, Aharone will be the Kohain Gadol, before that moment, essentially Moshe was the Kohain Gadol, perhaps he delayed because he was not quite ready to give up that position.
In each case there is a delay, each of these people is going through some type of moral challenge. In each situation they ultimately do the right thing, but they think about it for a bit. The Shalshelet is the note that indicates a delay on the part of a person because there is some type of issue by which the person is being challenged.
Let us now return to Yoseph and the wife of Potifar. If Yoseph is taking so long to say no to the wife of Potifar, perhaps he is thinking yes or at least maybe. Ultimately, he says no. He does the right thing. However, he is challenged at that moment. The Shalshelet gives us some insight to what might have been going on in the mind of Yoseph. Maybe he was thinking, “This woman is so beautiful, I am so attracted to her, I desire her so greatly. So why not? What is so wrong? He will not find out? We will only do it once? What is the big deal? However, then he thinks, no I cannot do this. It is wrong? This is not what I am about. I cannot do such an immoral thing”?
Many of us engage in life with what I like to call our own inner personal soundtrack. In other words, we hear certain kinds of music in our minds’ ear when we encounter certain experiences in life. I think we should all program ourselves to hear the Shalshelet when we encounter moral challenges in our life, and perhaps in that extra time we have, we will think about our choices and choose to do the right thing.
The musical reference this week was the song “Mrs Robinson” by Simon and Garfunkel”. The reference is simultaneously a musical reference and a film reference. The film is the “Graduate” (The “Graduate” came out in 1967 and was Directed by Mike Nichols based on the 1963 novel “The Graduate” by Charles Webb, who wrote it shortly after he graduated from Williams College. Buck Henry wrote the screenplay.) In the movie recent college graduate Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) is seduced by Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), who happens to be the wife of his father’s business partner. The two have a sexual affair and then Benjamin finds himself falling in love with the daughter of Mrs. Robinson, Elaine (Katharine Ross). At the conclusion of the film Benjamin and Elaine end up together. I found the “Graduate” to be somewhat similar to the story of Yoseph and the wife of Potiphar. In Bereishit/Genesis 41 Yoseph makes it out of jail and becomes the Viceroy of Egypt. In verse 45 we learn that Yoseph marries a woman by the name of Asnot daughter of Potee Pera, the Priest of On. Obviously, he is so accepted into Egyptian society that he can marry the daughter of an important Egyptian official. However, it gets better. According to the commentator Rashi, Potee Pera is Potifar. Which means Yoseph’s mother-in-law is the wife of Potifar, the woman who tried to seduce him. There is one major difference between the “Graduate” and the story of Yoseph and the wife of Potifar. Yoseph does not have sex with the wife of Potifar. Perhaps it was thinking that Yoseph did while the Shalshelet was sounding that might have given him the moral fortitude to resist the temptation. Still it might have been awkward for Yoseph and his mother-in-law at family get togethers.
The following is excerpted from the song “Mrs Robinson” by Simon and & Garfunkel:
Hide it in a hiding place where no one ever goes
Put it in your pantry with your cupcakes
It’s a little secret, just the Robinsons’ affair
Most of all, you’ve got to hide it from the kids
Coo, coo, ca-choo, Mrs Robinson…