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 Tamars intent was lShem Shamayim, for the sake of Heaven, so was Eishet Potiphar s intent lShem 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, lShem Shamayim?.
The concept of lShem Shamayim or lshma 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 Rashis 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 lShem Shamayim, in this context, simply mean not for lustful purposes? Rashi, Bereishit Rabbah 85:2, in commenting on the term lShem 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 lShem 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 lShem 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 Tamars intent would be even more lShem 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. Tamars 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 Toar, Bereishit Rabbah 85:2 explains that Eishet Potiphars intent was to build a family from the House of Yaakov, an explanation that indeed is comparable to Tamars intent as described by Rashi. Given this perspective, the term lShem 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 Potiphars 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 lShem Shamayim? It could be that Eishet Potiphars 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 Tamars 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 Potiphars 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 lShem 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. Tamars actions in dressing as a prostitute and seducing Yaakov were somewhat problematic; all things being equal, this would not be proper behaviour. It was Tamars 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 Potiphars 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
Rashis words that Tamar considered the future and
her involvement in establishing the monarchy of
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 lShem 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 ones behaviour with thought and perceive a fuller picture does not necessarily mean that ones decision is the correct one. Eishet Potiphar may have been motivated lShem Shamayim but her actions still fell tragically short. To act lShem 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
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