The Word That Purifies Parashat Vayeshev

Each commentator reveals God in a different manner, and the attempt to attach meaning to it reveals more about the commentator than about the narrative.

Yakov Z. Meyer
Yakov Z. Meyer

Psalm 105 tersely relates the story of Joseph, which is presented in detail in this week’s Torah reading. According to Psalms, “He sent a man before them; Joseph was sold for a servant; his feet they hurt with fetters, his person was laid in iron; until the time that his word came to pass, the word of the Lord tested [or refined] him” ‏(Psalms 105:17-19‏).

However, the subject of those verses is not Joseph, but rather God, who controls the story’s plot from on high. Through this colorful precis of the events in Genesis, Psalm 105 reveals the motives of the story’s director.

Joseph is sold into slavery in Egypt for a reason: He is to be the emissary who will precede his family’s arrival there. Upon arrival, he is sold as a slave to Potiphar and after being falsely accused by Potiphar’s wife, is sent to prison, where “his person [is] laid in iron.” Joseph remains there “until the time that his word came to pass, the word of the Lord tested him.”

This is the moment when his fate undergoes a dramatic change. The next two verses in the psalm depict how God frees Joseph from his imprisonment: “The king sent and loosed him; even the ruler of the peoples, and set him free. He made him lord of his house, and ruler of all his possessions” ‏(Psalm 105:20-21‏).

However, the moment when this dramatic change occurs is a mystery: What is the “word” that “came to pass,” completely changing the course of events in Joseph’s life? Furthermore, how does one understand the idea of God’s word testing or refining Joseph? Rashi provides the following interpretation: “‘the word of the Lord tested him’ − God puts Joseph to the test. Faced with temptation, Joseph controls his passion in the episode with his master’s wife. Because of her, he is tormented and purified by the suffering he undergoes when sent to prison by his master.”

According to Rashi, after referring to Joseph’s being placed in prison, the text then returns to describe the event that led to his imprisonment and torment. The “word of the

Lord” is the fate God prepares for Joseph: The painful incarceration he endures in the wake of the sexual temptation that he resists in the incident involving Potiphar’s wife. Joseph must experience that suffering “until the time that his word came to pass.” In Rashi’s view, “his word” is “the word of God, who decrees that events will unfold in such a way as to eventually cause Israel to leave the Promised Land and descend to Egypt.”

For his part, the 12th-century commentator Abraham Ibn Ezra adopts a different approach, offering this explanation for “the word of the Lord tested [or, refined] him”: “God places the true interpretation of the dreams on Joseph’s lips; thus, the interpretation that is uttered is pure, without any impurities whatever.” The phrase “word of the Lord” refers to the words that God places on Joseph’s lips when he interprets the dreams of Pharaoh’s butler and baker, and Ibn Ezra goes on to explain who or what is refined: “The hey and , [which form the suffix ‘hu,’ meaning ‘it’ or ‘whom,’ and] which are the last two letters in the word tzerafat’hu [tested ‏(or refined‏) him], indicate that the verb refers to Joseph’s interpretation of the dreams of the butler and the baker.” Mention of the process of refining is a reference not to Joseph suffering in prison, but to his interpretation of the dreams, which is refined or purified − that is, becomes clear.

As Ibn Ezra says, “‘until the time that his word came to pass’ − until the interpretation is actually realized.” Until “his word came to pass,” that is, until his interpretation of the dreams of Pharaoh’s two servants is proven to be correct in reality, Joseph remains in prison.

Rashi’s and Ibn Ezra’s explanations are diametrically opposed. For Rashi, the text, which is the “word [that will come] to pass” and the “word of the Lord [that] tested [or refined] him,” is human history as determined by God. In contrast, for Ibn Ezra, the text is the interpretation that Joseph provides for the dreams of the two servants. Whereas in Rashi’s view, Joseph must stay in prison until God’s word comes to pass, in Ibn Ezra’s opinion, Joseph must stay there until the interpretation he himself uttered is fulfilled.

For Rashi, the “word of the Lord [that] tested [or refined] him” is the trial that God subjects Joseph to, and which refines − that is, torments − Joseph as he sits in prison. For Ibn Ezra, the “word of the Lord [that] tested [or refined] him” is the assistance that God provides Joseph, who is cast in the role of dream interpreter, and it is that “word” which refines − that is, purifies − Joseph’s interpretation of the dreams.

This lovely interpretive dispute actually reflects a much wider question. In a literal reading of Genesis, Joseph’s story is a tragedy of errors, cruelty and fate. The reasons behind the chain of events and the “engine” driving them are hidden from the reader’s view. Joseph does not know how to conceal what is weighing on his mind. Sparking his brothers’ anger, he is taken from his home, sold into slavery and thrown into prison. The reader seeks relief from this impression of happenstance and looks for the presence of a guiding hand that can give meaning to the tortuous path Joseph follows, something that can either solve the mystery or give these events meaning.

The commentators, who wish to impart meaning to this text, add an additional layer: divine providence, of which the protagonists in the story are unaware. Since each commentator reveals God in a different manner here, the attempt to attach meaning to it reveals more about the commentator than about the narrative per se. The precise place where the commentator sees the invisible, guiding hand should draw the reader’s attention because, as in Adam Smith’s attributing the behavior of the market to the actions of the “invisible hand,” this is the point that the commentator, qua reader, identifies as the weakest element in the story. It is the place that arouses the height of fear in the heart of the commentator, who wishes to see the trust-inspiring hand of God directing the protagonists.

The author of Psalm 105 identifies two such weak points in the story. The first is the moment of Joseph’s descent into Egypt. Joseph could have been expected to remain on his own, and perhaps even start a new story in Egypt that would be distinct from his family’s story. This potential turn of events is alluded to in Joseph’s words, which attest to his mood, when he names his firstborn son: “And Joseph called the name of the first-born Manasseh: ‘for God hath made me forget all my toil, and all my father’s house.’” ‏(Genesis 41:51‏). This mood is also expressed when he names his second child: “And the name of the second called he Ephraim: ‘for God hath made me fruitful in the land of my affliction.’” ‏(Gen. 41:52‏). For this reason, the author of the psalm focuses on the moment of Joseph’s separation from his brothers, identifying that moment as a divinely fashioned prelude to their own eventual descent into Egypt. God “sent a man before them”; the brothers are the main topic, not Joseph, whose role is confined to blazing the trail that they will later walk along.

The second point in which the psalmist identifies God’s hand is the difficult-to-understand verse, “until the time that his word came to pass, the word of the Lord tested [or refined] him.” From the words “until the time that,” it is clear that this is the moment when Joseph’s fate is turned upside down; the psalmist focuses on that moment by presenting the idea that God’s word has a purifying effect. Since the precise nature of the reversal of Joseph’s fate cannot be explicitly derived from the language of the text, these two medieval commentators have the opportunity to identify, through the nature of the reversal, the point that disturbs them the most in the story.

Rashi, who sees God’s hand in the torment Joseph undergoes until God brings his entire family to Egypt, interprets the “word of the Lord [that] tested [or refined]” Joseph as referring to that torment. For Rashi, God’s “word [that] came to pass” − God’s word that will rescue him from them − will be the main story: the family’s arrival in Egypt. The moment of fear that is relieved by the divine presence is the moment that Joseph’s fate is reversed, when he is transformed from a passive figure, a victim of circumstances, into an active and successful individual.

Rashi identifies this moment, emphasizing the gap between Joseph’s own life story and the broader story of his family. God thrusts a painful fate upon Joseph, who is condemned to rot in prison until God releases him by bringing his family to Egypt and by weaving Joseph’s personal suffering into the overall context of the story of Israel’s descent into exile.

Both the suffering and the solution of Joseph’s situation are determined by divine providence, and perhaps one can identify here Rashi’s Ashkenazi view of balance in life, according to which suffering is a means of “purifying” individuals and providing them with atonement for their sins, and for society’s.

A different ethos is presented by Ibn Ezra, the Spanish-Jewish refugee who is himself forced to flee his homeland because he fears the persecution of the Almohad regime, writing his commentaries during the course of his wanderings. From his commentary on Psalm 105, it is apparent that for him, the greatest moment of fear in the story, the moment of weakness when the author desperately needs the presence of God’s guiding hand, is when Joseph approaches the “text” of the dreams of the two servants and proposes his interpretation.

His is an authentic interpretation, which has been “purified” and has no impurities whatsoever; it is a creation that succeeds only thanks to divine inspiration, and which is capable of raising Joseph from the prison pit of captivity, allowing him to sit on the throne of the viceroy of Egypt.

Joseph remains in prison “until the time that his word came to pass” − until the accuracy of his interpretation is revealed. This precision can only be achieved through the “word of the Lord [that] tested [or refined] him,” purifying the interpretation of the servants’ dreams and providing Joseph with potent power.

Perhaps Ibn Ezra is actually providing a reflective report on his own demanding work as a commentator who tries to remove impurities from his interpretations; who can carry out this delicate work only with the help of divine providence; who, if blessed with the assistance of divine grace, can produce the perfect interpretation and can, with the power of the text, dramatically change his own destiny and the destiny of his people.

'Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife,' by Bartolome Murillo (c. 1645)

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