5767 - #09


Rashi, Bereishit 39:2 presents an idea that can only be described as most bewildering. He presents a connection between the story of Yehuda and Tamar1 and this story of Yosef and Eishet Potiphar, declaring that just as Tamar’s intent was l’Shem Shamayim, for the sake of Heaven, so was Eishet Potiphar ‘s intent l’Shem Shamayim. It seems that the wife of Potiphar consulted her astrologers and saw that in the future, it was destined for children to emerge from her and Yosef. While she was still not sure whether these children would be from her or her daughter,2 her attempts to mate with Yosef were not simply motivated by lust3 but rather arose from this vision of her astrologers. But, still, how is this comparable to the actions of Tamar? Furthermore, what makes this motivation, albeit not for lust, l’Shem Shamayim?.

            The concept of l’Shem Shamayim or l’sh’ma has many variant definitions in Jewish Thought – not just as a result of disagreement on its meaning but also reflecting different understandings of this concept dependant on the specific context. 4 Rashi’s comments, which are actually based on Bereishit Rabbah 85:2, though, demand contemplation. Perhaps Rashi is simply informing us that, just as Tamar was not motivated by lust in her attempt to seduce Yehuda, Eishet Potiphar, in her attempt to seduce Yosef, was also not motivated by lust. Could l’Shem Shamayim, in this context, simply mean not for lustful purposes?  Rashi, Bereishit Rabbah 85:2, in commenting on the term l’Shem Shamayim, further describes the intent of Eishet Potiphar as a desire to have a son with Yosef. But, again, could this really be all that is meant by the term l’Shem Shamayim? Furthermore, how can this intent be compared to the intent of Tamar whose motivation was to do the right thing and fulfill the concept of yibum, of having a child in the name of her deceased husband? 5

            Interestingly, Rashi, in explaining the application of the term l’Shem Shamayim to Tamar, describes her desire as being for the Jewish monarchy to descend from her. 5 Why the need for such an explanation when the idealistic intent of Tamar is so obvious in the text? Furthermore, it would seem that the simple textual understanding of Tamar’s intent would be even more l’Shem Shamayim than this explanation of Rashi? This explanation does, though, further a comparison between Tamar and Eishet Potiphar; although the comparison still does remain somewhat problematic. Tamar’s intent was to connect with the Jewish monarchy, a highly noble idea; is the desire of Eishet Potiphar for a son with Yosef truly comparable? Yafeh To’ar, Bereishit Rabbah 85:2 explains that Eishet Potiphar’s intent was to build a family from the House of Yaakov, an explanation that indeed is comparable to Tamar’s intent as described by Rashi. Given this perspective, the term l’Shem Shamayim would seem to indicate a desire by these two women to build families connected to the nobility of the Jewish People. Such a perspective would seem to indicate a more idealistic motivation, yet there are still difficulties with this explanation.

            In referring to the vision of her astrologers, it would actually seem that Rashi must be including in Eishet Potiphar’s intent a desire to fulfill these words. How could a desire to bring to fruition the predictions of such idol worshippers be connected, in any way, to l’Shem Shamayim? It could be that Eishet Potiphar’s intent was to have a son with Yosef and once she was told that it was actually destined for her to share progeny with Yosef, she adopted her bold path – but still there is this taint of idolatry? In any event, even if we can compare her intent and Tamar’s intent, how can we, in any way, compare their behaviour? Indeed the midrash is only comparing intent, but still Tamar did something that, while outwardly able to be perceived as incorrect, was inherently proper; Eishet Potiphar’s desired action was fully immoral regardless of this noble intention to build a family within the House of Yaakov. In the end, it does seem that the simple teaching of Rashi and this midrash is that in the same way Tamar was not motivated by lust, Eishet Potiphar was also not motivated by lust. But still, why would the absence of lust be described as l’Shem Shamayim?

In both these stories, we re-visit the age-old question: does the end justify the means? In the case of Tamar, the answer is yes. Tamar’s actions in dressing as a prostitute and seducing Yaakov were somewhat problematic; all things being equal, this would not be proper behaviour. It was Tamar’s intent and goal that transformed these actions into acts of righteousness; the end justified the means. In the case of Eishet Potiphar, however, the end did not justify the means. Eishet Potiphar’s noble desire to connect with the Jewish People could not justify adultery. There are times when the end does justify the means and there are times when it does not. The demand, as such, is for thoughtful consideration of an issue and the development of a Torah methodology by which one can determine when the end does justify the means and when it does not

         To develop such a methodology, though, one must gain a most important perspective on life. One can live in the minute and make decisions pursuant to the emotions and motivations of the moment. One can also live with a recognition of past, present and future, and a realization that what occurs in the minute can also transcend time. The difficulty with lust is not that it highlights the physical and lauds physical pleasure. The spiritual lust for idolatry is seen within the world of Torah in a similar vein as sexual lust. The problem with lust is that it captures the moment, driving the human being to miss the grander, full picture of reality but rather to succumb to the world of the moment. The first step to righteousness is to challenge this view, to see reality in its greater sense and live beyond the moment in a world that contemplates past, present and future and the breadth of existence. This was the vision of Tamar – and this vision is further enhanced by Rashi’s words that Tamar considered the future and her involvement in establishing the monarchy of Israel. This is the root of l’Shem Shamayim. To act in this manner demands thought, a vision of the whole, a recognition that there is more beyond the present. But such a perspective does not mean a denial of the present. While Eishet Potiphar may have been seeing beyond the moment, she was mistaken in not including the moment – and the fact that she was still a married woman.

There is no simple formula for righteousness. A first step is clearly that we do not succumb to drives and emotions in the moment; lust acting in a vacuum is the antithesis of Godliness. To act l’Shem Shamayim demands that one see the entire vision of reality and recognize that proper Torah behaviour must emerge from thought and an evaluation of all time beyond the moment. Is this not the very essence of a belief in One God? Still to escape the world of the moment, to consider one’s behaviour with thought and perceive a fuller picture does not necessarily mean that one’s decision is the correct one. Eishet Potiphar may have been motivated l’Shem Shamayim but her actions still fell tragically short. To act l’Shem Shamayim still demands that we make correct decisions – and sometimes that involves recognizing that the moment is still part of this fuller vision of reality.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht e-mail


(1)  Bereishit 38:6-30.
Indeed, Yosef does marry this daughter. See Bereishit 41:45 including Rashi.
Of course, it should be noted that there are other approaches to this story, found in the midrash and the commentators, which do describe her basic motivation as sexual lust (which would seem to be the more straightforward way of reading the text).
Further on different understandings on this term, see Rabbi Norman Lamm, Torah for Torah’s Sake.
The clear implication in the Tamar story is that the performance of yibum was, furthermore, a fulfillment of the Divine Will.
. (6) 
Dovid Hamelech, of course, is a direct descendent of Tamar.

(c) Nishma, 2006.

Return to top