Joseph: Technicolor Tzadik?

The complex character of Joseph raises questions about what it means to be righteous.

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Jewish tradition has much to say about the causes of enmity against Joseph. Even traditional rabbinic commentators are troubled by the young man's behavior. Some authorities claim that the act of dreaming the dreams itself was reprehensible, as it exhibited visions of grandeur that Joseph obviously nursed during wakeful moments. The commentators understand the brothers' hatred of Joseph and express shock that he would reveal not just one but two dreams.

Why, then, does Jewish tradition refer to Joseph as "HaTzadik," some commentators ask? Such "overweening pride and self-importance [seems] remote indeed from the conception of righteousness implicit in the title," writes contemporary scholar Nehama Liebowitz. Elie Wiesel does battle with this notion as well, asserting that Joseph was the singular ancestor called "righteous" in a line of great patriarchs.

Countless traditional commentators offer that Joseph's greatest act as tzadik came in resisting the temptation of Potiphar's wife. He was also said to be consistently God-fearing in a secular world, and humble in a position of power.

But Wiesel is not satisfied. The Nobel laureate knows from later parashiyot that even while Joseph was praising God's divine wisdom, he was endlessly scheming his own next move; while he embraced his Abrahamic origins, he kept one foot firmly planted in the secular, Egyptian culture that rewarded him.

A Word

The Joseph saga raises the question of how contemporary Jews choose their Biblical role models. What can we learn from these eminent characters with all their internal flaws, their morally imperfect behavior, their all-too-human shortcomings?

There is a fine line between being righteous and being self-righteous. In Hebrew, the distinction is between being a "tzadik," righteous, and being "tzadik b'einav," righteous in one's own eyes. Joseph, it seems, struggled with his own divinely ordained charm, which was both the source of his brothers' enmity and of his effectiveness as a member of Pharaoh's court.

Wiesel only accepts Joseph as "HaTzadik" because it is a righteous person who resists temptations in human relationships. 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."

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Rabbi Sharon Mars

Rabbi Sharon Mars is Northeast Community Program Coordinator and Jewish Educator at the Columbus, OH JCC. Previously she was the Campus Rabbi at NC Hillel.