Joseph The Tzadik

What makes Joseph a tzadik? Certainly it is not being a braggadocio or a tattletale. Even Nehama Leibowitz writes such “overweening pride and self-importance [seems] remote indeed from the conception of righteousness implicit in the title.”

According to most sources, Joseph becomes a tzadik when he refused to sleep with Potiphar’s wife. Yet is this really the low bar we set for a tzadik, that he refuses to commit adultery? After all, he doesn’t know that Potiphar’s wife will fabricate a lie leading him to Egyptian prison!

Rather, Joseph is described as a tzadik because he sees G-d (אלהים) in every fabric of his life. Before he is sold into Egyptian slavery, G-d has no part in Joseph’s narrative. It is all “You bow down to me.” The first time G-d appears is when Joseph resists Potiphar’s wife, as he says “How could I do this most wicked thing and sin before G-d?”[1]  G-d next is mentioned when Joseph is imprisoned with the butler and the baker, when Joseph says “Surely G-d can interpret! Tell me your dreams.”[2] The third time is in next week’s reading (Miketz) with Pharaoh, when Joseph says, “Not I! G-d will see to Pharaoh’s welfare.”[3] In fact, G-d is mentioned by Joseph five times in that story as the source of Joseph’s power in dream telling. The fourth time is when Joseph’s brothers come down to Egypt, accused of being spies, and Joseph says “Do this and you shall live. For I am a G-d fearing man. If you are honest men, let one of your brothers be held in your place in detention while the rest of you go and take home rations for your starving households; but you must bring me your youngest brother, that your words may be verified and that you may not die.”[4] It is only after this that any of the other brothers mentions the name of G-d. The final time G-d is mentioned by Joseph is two weeks from today (VaYigash) when he says “Do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me here; it was to save life that G-d sent me ahead of you.”[5] He repeats similar words twice in the next three verses.

Elie Wiesel sees Joseph is crowned tzadik because he ultimately forgave his brothers for selling him into slavery and compassionately helps his family move to Egypt during a time of famine in Canaan. Joseph succeeds in vanquishing his bitterness and turns it into love. What does all this mean?” Wiesel asks. “That one is not born a Tzadik; one must strive to become one. And having become a Tzadik, one must strive to remain one.”

Recently I was on a panel for teens at Temple Beth Am, representing the Conservative Movement. To the left of me sat a Reform colleague and to the right a Chabad rabbi. The Chabad rabbi began his remarks by talking about how everything is predetermined and happens for a reason. A Reform colleague there said at the end of the remarks that she does not believe that. I generally side closer to my Chabad colleague but not this week. As I prepare to do a funeral for a baby who passed away at 2 days old, I think why did G-d allow this to happen? And then I think there is no lesson to be learned in the death of one so young, so helpless, so full of the potential for a full life of goodness and blessing. Joseph’s dreams might have come true but what about the dreams of these parents? He might be a Tzadik in seeing G-d’s hand in everything, in (as the Hasidim teach) bringing the heavens down towards the earth. I am no such Tzadik-I can’t see G-d’s hand in this and it would be Hutzpah to even try. Perhaps Joseph has a gift of intuition that I do not and probably will never possess, or perhaps he is too sure of himself for his own good.

Early this week I gave my secretary “The Birth of Joseph” by my grandmother, Lucille Frenkel z”l. I will conclude with another of her poems, “The Weeping.”

Joseph stands, with past unspoken,

Recalling how he lived heartbroken

Through long years of misery,

Through the years of slavery,

Wherein his sufferings were great,

Wherein he fought the thoughts of hate,

But where he learned to understand

The mood and modes of differing men.

Though many times he tasted shame,

The shame, the pain of slavery,

Joseph was conscious should he blame

Others for their treachery,

So would his soul turn bitterly

Away from God.


And Joseph, he had faith in God.

And Joseph, he believed in prayer.

Young Joseph, Jacob’s most loved son,

This Joseph, he believed in God.

Thus Joseph strongly clung to faith,

And through God’s mercy and God’s grace

He did survive from depths of pit,

He did survive and stay alive

To thrive, to prosper, and grow wise,

And rise to status where

He was now Pharaoh’s governor

Who held decision and command

Of all the grain of Egypt’s land.


Now, mighty Joseph stands and hears

His long-lost brothers’ plea for food

In Hebrew tongue well understood.

A cool aloofness masks his tears.

He hides those tears which well his eyes,

And speaks to brethren no replies,

But turns, departs with no word spoken-

His paining and his ache unspoken,

His yearning and his love unspoken.

And in a room of solitude,

A flood a tears flows from his eyes.

There, only, is the silence broken

By soft sob, as Joseph cries.[6]

[1] Genesis 39:9

[2] Genesis 40:8

[3] Genesis 41:16

[4] Genesis 42:18-20

[5] Genesis 45:5

[6] Lucille Frenkel, “The Weeping: Comment on Genesis XLII Lines 1 Thru 24 (Milwaukee, WI: The Eternity Press, 1980).