It seems that every week another famous personality is outed as a predator or abuser, and publicly fired and condemned. Most of these cases involve a man using his position of power to get away with behavior that is (to put it lightly) objectionable.
In last week’s parsha, we read of Shechem, prince of a city, who used his power to take advantage of Dinah, daughter of Yaakov. Justice was meted out fairly quickly through the sword of her brothers, but her life was ruined as a result.
This week, in Vayashev, we read of a woman in a position of power who sought to take advantage of a young man. Potiphar, wife of Yosef’s master, worked diligently to seduce Yosef. 39:10 indicates how she approached him day after day, and how he refused to “lay next to her, to be with her.”
Many midrashim note a comparison between this and another tale of a forward woman, who was much more modest in her proposal and certainly not in a position to abuse power. The man in that other situation, despite being placed in an uncomfortable situation, was a true gentleman. That was the Ruth/Boaz story, when she came to his granary in the middle of the night, as he slept on the floor, and she uncovered his feet and lay down next to him. When he awoke and found a woman laying at his feet, the conversation went like this:
“Who are you?” “I am Ruth, your handmaid, and you shall spread your wing over your handmaid, for you are a near kinsman.” And he said, “May you be blessed of the L-rd, my daughter; your latest act of kindness is greater than the first, not to follow the young men, whether poor or rich. And now, my daughter, do not be afraid. All that you say I will do for you, for the entire gate of my people know that you are a woman of valor” (Ruth 3:9-11).
Boaz said, “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of everything you asked,” but instead he says, “Do not be afraid,” indicating an effort to put her at ease so that she would not need to worry about her safety. Potiphar’s wife did nothing of the sort. Why she wanted Yosef may relate to his personal beauty, her disgust for her husband, or her husband’s personal preferences (and therefore inattentiveness towards her).
Rabbenu Bachaye noted that when Yosef was promoted in Potiphar’s house he felt that he was on top of the world. This drew the master’s wife to Yosef even more, because he was not a lowly servant. On the other hand, I wonder how ancient societies viewed the master or mistress of the house having their way with the help. It is no secret that the third president of the United States was involved in this fashion with his own slaves. Was it expected, therefore, that Yosef was to be submissive and an easy conquest for her, and the fact that he had a mind of his own was insulting to her?
There is no question who truly had the power over the other. She was the master’s wife, and he was the servant. So her advances were no different than the kind we read of in the newspapers today.
The simplest summary of what was going on is in the Midrash Sechel Tov, who writes that Yosef “did not listen to her” to commit the act, “to lay next to her,” even to simply lay on the same bed (some commentaries suggest “with clothes on”), or “to be with her” in violation of the rules of seclusion, where the two of them are alone together in the same room (hereafter “yichud”), even with nothing official going on (Ibn Ezra says “to talk with her”).
It is this last one which is the key to all ails of our society’s indiscretions. Malbim, Seforno, Rashbam and others mention yichud as something Yosef refused to give in on, and when he found himself alone in the house with her — a reality he did not foresee — he ran out of the house!
When the vice president was harangued by the media for essentially saying he avoids seclusion with any woman who is not his wife, I recall shaking my head thinking, he is aware of the laws of yichud, and a “liberal” society is killing him for exercising common sense.
Avoiding seclusion, and therefore the remotest possibility of indiscretion, is what should be promoted and embraced by our society. It means lots of open doors, or at the very least, being in rooms with windows or video cameras, so suspicion can be cast aside and temptation undermined by either the fear of being caught, or the embarrassment of being seen doing something inappropriate.
I once heard Rabbi Mordechai Willig suggest avoiding yichud with the Internet as well. May that suggestion also be taken under advisement. Amen.