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Weekly Torah Portion: Vayashev (Genesis 37-40) Finding Meaning at Work

Then there was an opportune day when he entered the house to do his work-none of the household staff were in the house-that she caught hold of him by his garment and said, “Lie with me!” But he left his garment in her hand and fled. (Genesis 39:11-12)
This week’s Parsha contains one of the most dramatic stories in the entire Bible – the attempted seduction of Joseph. He was a slave in the household of Potifar, a high-ranking minister of the Egyptian king. Though a slave, Joseph was extremely talented, and Potifar entrusted him with the management of the entire household.

Joseph had another aspect; he was extremely handsome. As a result, Potifar’s wife began to ceaselessly attempt to seduce him. On the day of a major Egyptian celebration, Potifar’s entire household left to join in the rejoicing but his wife feigned illness and remained at home. Joseph entered the house as he did every day and almost succumbed to her temptations but the image of his father, Yaakov (Jacob), came to him and that was the impetus for him to deny her advances. Joseph then seized control of himself and fled.

Question: Why did Joseph come to the house that day; why didn’t he attend the major Egyptian celebration like everyone else? The Midrash explains; “It was the day of the rising of the Nile, and they all went to see, and he [Joseph] entered to do his work, to calculate the accounts of his master.” In short, he came to work that day because of his integrity to his work ethic.

It is crucial to bear in mind that it was the day that the Nile burst forth from its banks to rise upon the entire land of Egypt and therefore there was a day of rejoicing throughout Egypt. The Midrash concludes, “and they all went to see and he [Joseph] entered to do his work.” Scripture took the trouble to tell us the seemingly unnecessary detail that he came to the house to do his work that day. This is significant because it demonstrates the extreme piety of Joseph. Even though all the servants were subordinate to him, and they all took the morning off to attend the festivities, nevertheless, he didn’t follow their lead, rather he faithfully came to the house to do the work of his master.

Much is written in the Torah describing Joseph’s Godly stature. Even though his brothers were all people of enormous holiness, he was apparently the most pious of them all. He is referred to in Torah literature as Yosef Hatzaddik – Joseph, the righteous. Although Adam, Noah, and the patriarchs had already lived, the Midrash says it was the merit of Joseph fleeing from the temptation of Potifar’s wife that caused the Red Sea to split at the time of the Exodus when they were being chased by Pharaoh’s soldiers and chariots. None of this would have happened if he hadn’t gone to work that day.

This Midrash reveals an additional and heretofore unknown dimension to Joseph’s piety. What could eclipse all of Joseph’s other spiritual accomplishments? What deed demonstrated yet greater piety than that which is otherwise known about Joseph? This Midrash provides the answer…Joseph worked most faithfully for his master Potifar.
Evidently, extreme integrity in matters of money requires consummate righteousness and sanctity. Thus, Joseph’s being a faithful employee demonstrated an additional level of piety that would not have been otherwise evident, notwithstanding all of his other Godly attributes.

Many people are troubled by the nagging feeling that their daily labors do not involve spiritual growth. This Midrash teaches that any workplace presents a unique opportunity for such growth. Working with absolute integrity, as Joseph did, can beget exalted holiness. Absolute integrity at work connotes far more than basic job performance. It means, for example, that unless permission is granted, one should work during every minute for which (s)he is paid, never pocket anything from the business, however small items such as office supplies.

It is very disappointing to hear reports of outwardly devout Jews being implicated in major financial wrongdoing. The (incorrect) impression given by such news is that devout Torah observant Jews can coexist with ongoing financial misconduct. As has been indicated, little could be further from the truth.

The following quote is from Kav Hayashar,a classic 17th Century work on Torah ethics and the service of G-d. In chapter 52 he strongly emphasizes this Torah business ethic.

When one sees a Jew kissing tefillin and praying but not dealing with integrity in money matters, one must distance himself from him with all forms of detachment because true piety (i.e. the litmus testof one’s virtue) is [expressed] in matters of money. A man who maintains his piety in financial matters is the consummate tzaddik (righteous person.)
People from all walks of life look for meaning in their daily lives. Ancient Jewish wisdom teaches that even something as mundane as the daily grind of work is an occasion for one to show how strong his or her convictions are. No matter what you do for a living, the workplace (with the proper mindset) presents far more opportunities than just earning a salary.
(Sources: Eitz Yosef on Midrash Raba Shir Hashirim 1:1; Yalkut Shimoni on Tehillim 114:3; Defining Humanity: Exploring Torah Insights into Man and Morality by Rabbi Berish Ganz)