Restraint and the Beginning of Transformation: Joseph in Potiphar's House

From Rabbi David Cooper: Big Mind Practice

The relative viewpoint is the way we humans perceive the universe. The absolute viewpoint is the way God perceives creation, so to speak. Let us investigate more closely what this means.

Every individual has a unique point of view depending upon a multitude of variables: language, culture, age, gender, family experience, education, socio-economic status, etc. There are hundreds of variables that eventually affect one’s level of consciousness. Therefore, there are billions of unique relative viewpoints. This vast spectrum of human consciousness falls into a single category known in Jewish mysticism as mochin de katnut, literally defined as “small mind.”

This definition of small mind is not intended to be interpreted as a demeaning notion for it is an all-inclusive representation of the way people see things, without regard to the fact that it includes all genius and all ignorance of human perception. So, Einstein’s equations fall into the category of small mind just as much as small mind includes someone who is considered mentally challenged because of extremely low intelligence. The essential point is that when the human mind is clinging to a particular thought-subject, it is in the realm of mochin de katnut. Obviously, most of us live our lives in this realm most of the time.

In opposition to mochin de katnut, there is a realm of consciousness described in Kabbalah as mochin de gadlut, literally “big mind.” The awareness of big mind is not limited in any way by any of the variables described above. Big mind has no limit at all—it is aware of everything, everywhere, at all times. Indeed, it is primordial awareness itself.

Small mind continuously sees imperfections, it judges and criticizes how life is unfolding, it wants to fix things and make things better. Small mind also experiences strong emotions and is often dissatisfied and frustrated. But small mind is sometimes happy and even joyous. In the end, however, one of the most common conditions of small mind is its sense of confusion—it wonders often about how life works and if there is any purpose to one’s existence.

One of our predicaments in this life is our continuous propensity to be overwhelmed by the appearance of things and our complete immersion in the belief of our separate self. These two aspects of our lives are reinforced time and again, day after day, moment after moment. As long as we believe there is a central “me,” and that this “I” engages unlimited worldly objects, we are forever surrounded and immersed in the realm of small mind.

Yet, consider this idea of mochin de gadlut, big mind. It has the following qualities. It recognizes each moment as perfect, just the way it is. Big mind is equanimous about matters (but not apathetic), it is sharply aware of the conditioning that lies under all of our activities. Big mind is never dissatisfied with the way things happen, it is a calm, expansive, spacious state. It sees clearly the mystery of life and rests comfortably in the state of “not knowing” what is going to happen from moment to moment. Small mind has an urge to be in some kind of control; big mind recognizes that the intrinsic nature of creation is that it is unknowable and uncontrollable.

(א) וְיוֹסֵ֖ף הוּרַ֣ד מִצְרָ֑יְמָה וַיִּקְנֵ֡הוּ פּוֹטִיפַר֩ סְרִ֨יס פַּרְעֹ֜ה שַׂ֤ר הַטַּבָּחִים֙ אִ֣ישׁ מִצְרִ֔י מִיַּד֙ הַיִּשְׁמְעֵאלִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר הוֹרִדֻ֖הוּ שָֽׁמָּה׃ (ב) וַיְהִ֤י יְהֹוָה֙ אֶת־יוֹסֵ֔ף וַיְהִ֖י אִ֣ישׁ מַצְלִ֑יחַ וַיְהִ֕י בְּבֵ֖ית אֲדֹנָ֥יו הַמִּצְרִֽי׃ (ג) וַיַּ֣רְא אֲדֹנָ֔יו כִּ֥י יְהֹוָ֖ה אִתּ֑וֹ וְכֹל֙ אֲשֶׁר־ה֣וּא עֹשֶׂ֔ה יְהֹוָ֖ה מַצְלִ֥יחַ בְּיָדֽוֹ׃ (ד) וַיִּמְצָ֨א יוֹסֵ֥ף חֵ֛ן בְּעֵינָ֖יו וַיְשָׁ֣רֶת אֹת֑וֹ וַיַּפְקִדֵ֙הוּ֙ עַל־בֵּית֔וֹ וְכׇל־יֶשׁ־ל֖וֹ נָתַ֥ן בְּיָדֽוֹ׃ (ה) וַיְהִ֡י מֵאָז֩ הִפְקִ֨יד אֹת֜וֹ בְּבֵית֗וֹ וְעַל֙ כׇּל־אֲשֶׁ֣ר יֶשׁ־ל֔וֹ וַיְבָ֧רֶךְ יְהֹוָ֛ה אֶת־בֵּ֥ית הַמִּצְרִ֖י בִּגְלַ֣ל יוֹסֵ֑ף וַיְהִ֞י בִּרְכַּ֤ת יְהֹוָה֙ בְּכׇל־אֲשֶׁ֣ר יֶשׁ־ל֔וֹ בַּבַּ֖יִת וּבַשָּׂדֶֽה׃
(1) When Joseph was taken down to Egypt, Potiphar, a courtier of Pharaoh and his prefect —a [type of] Egyptian official —bought him from the Ishmaelites who had brought him there. (2) יהוה was with Joseph, and he was a successful man; and he stayed in the house of his Egyptian master. (3) And when his master saw that יהוה was with him and that יהוה lent success to everything he undertook, (4) he took a liking to Joseph. He made him his personal attendant and put him in charge of his household, placing in his hands all that he owned. (5) And from the time that the Egyptian put him in charge of his household and of all that he owned, יהוה blessed his house for Joseph’s sake, so that the blessing of יהוה was upon everything that he owned, in the house and outside.
(ו) וַיַּעֲזֹ֣ב כׇּל־אֲשֶׁר־לוֹ֮ בְּיַד־יוֹסֵף֒ וְלֹא־יָדַ֤ע אִתּוֹ֙ מְא֔וּמָה כִּ֥י אִם־הַלֶּ֖חֶם אֲשֶׁר־ה֣וּא אוֹכֵ֑ל וַיְהִ֣י יוֹסֵ֔ף יְפֵה־תֹ֖אַר וִיפֵ֥ה מַרְאֶֽה׃ (ז) וַיְהִ֗י אַחַר֙ הַדְּבָרִ֣ים הָאֵ֔לֶּה וַתִּשָּׂ֧א אֵֽשֶׁת־אֲדֹנָ֛יו אֶת־עֵינֶ֖יהָ אֶל־יוֹסֵ֑ף וַתֹּ֖אמֶר שִׁכְבָ֥ה עִמִּֽי׃ (ח) וַיְמָאֵ֓ן ׀ וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ אֶל־אֵ֣שֶׁת אֲדֹנָ֔יו הֵ֣ן אֲדֹנִ֔י לֹא־יָדַ֥ע אִתִּ֖י מַה־בַּבָּ֑יִת וְכֹ֥ל אֲשֶׁר־יֶשׁ־ל֖וֹ נָתַ֥ן בְּיָדִֽי׃ (ט) אֵינֶ֨נּוּ גָד֜וֹל בַּבַּ֣יִת הַזֶּה֮ מִמֶּ֒נִּי֒ וְלֹֽא־חָשַׂ֤ךְ מִמֶּ֙נִּי֙ מְא֔וּמָה כִּ֥י אִם־אוֹתָ֖ךְ בַּאֲשֶׁ֣ר אַתְּ־אִשְׁתּ֑וֹ וְאֵ֨יךְ אֶֽעֱשֶׂ֜ה הָרָעָ֤ה הַגְּדֹלָה֙ הַזֹּ֔את וְחָטָ֖אתִי לֵֽאלֹהִֽים׃ (י) וַיְהִ֕י כְּדַבְּרָ֥הּ אֶל־יוֹסֵ֖ף י֣וֹם ׀ י֑וֹם וְלֹא־שָׁמַ֥ע אֵלֶ֛יהָ לִשְׁכַּ֥ב אֶצְלָ֖הּ לִהְי֥וֹת עִמָּֽהּ׃
(6) He left all that he had in Joseph’s hands and, with him there, he paid attention to nothing save the food that he ate. Now Joseph was well built and handsome. (7) After a time, his master’s wife cast her eyes upon Joseph and said, “Lie with me.” (8) But he refused. He said to his master’s wife, “Look, with me here, my master gives no thought to anything in this house, and all that he owns he has placed in my hands. (9) He wields no more authority in this house than I, and he has withheld nothing from me except yourself, since you are his wife. How then could I do this most wicked thing, and sin before God?” (10) And much as she coaxed Joseph day after day, he did not yield to her request to lie beside her, to be with her.
(יא) וַיְהִי֙ כְּהַיּ֣וֹם הַזֶּ֔ה וַיָּבֹ֥א הַבַּ֖יְתָה לַעֲשׂ֣וֹת מְלַאכְתּ֑וֹ וְאֵ֨ין אִ֜ישׁ מֵאַנְשֵׁ֥י הַבַּ֛יִת שָׁ֖ם בַּבָּֽיִת׃ (יב) וַתִּתְפְּשֵׂ֧הוּ בְּבִגְד֛וֹ לֵאמֹ֖ר שִׁכְבָ֣ה עִמִּ֑י וַיַּעֲזֹ֤ב בִּגְדוֹ֙ בְּיָדָ֔הּ וַיָּ֖נׇס וַיֵּצֵ֥א הַחֽוּצָה׃ (יג) וַיְהִי֙ כִּרְאוֹתָ֔הּ כִּֽי־עָזַ֥ב בִּגְד֖וֹ בְּיָדָ֑הּ וַיָּ֖נׇס הַחֽוּצָה׃ (יד) וַתִּקְרָ֞א לְאַנְשֵׁ֣י בֵיתָ֗הּ וַתֹּ֤אמֶר לָהֶם֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר רְא֗וּ הֵ֥בִיא לָ֛נוּ אִ֥ישׁ עִבְרִ֖י לְצַ֣חֶק בָּ֑נוּ בָּ֤א אֵלַי֙ לִשְׁכַּ֣ב עִמִּ֔י וָאֶקְרָ֖א בְּק֥וֹל גָּדֽוֹל׃ (טו) וַיְהִ֣י כְשׇׁמְע֔וֹ כִּֽי־הֲרִימֹ֥תִי קוֹלִ֖י וָאֶקְרָ֑א וַיַּעֲזֹ֤ב בִּגְדוֹ֙ אֶצְלִ֔י וַיָּ֖נׇס וַיֵּצֵ֥א הַחֽוּצָה׃ (טז) וַתַּנַּ֥ח בִּגְד֖וֹ אֶצְלָ֑הּ עַד־בּ֥וֹא אֲדֹנָ֖יו אֶל־בֵּיתֽוֹ׃ (יז) וַתְּדַבֵּ֣ר אֵלָ֔יו כַּדְּבָרִ֥ים הָאֵ֖לֶּה לֵאמֹ֑ר בָּֽא־אֵלַ֞י הָעֶ֧בֶד הָֽעִבְרִ֛י אֲשֶׁר־הֵבֵ֥אתָ לָּ֖נוּ לְצַ֥חֶק בִּֽי׃ (יח) וַיְהִ֕י כַּהֲרִימִ֥י קוֹלִ֖י וָאֶקְרָ֑א וַיַּעֲזֹ֥ב בִּגְד֛וֹ אֶצְלִ֖י וַיָּ֥נׇס הַחֽוּצָה׃ (יט) וַיְהִי֩ כִשְׁמֹ֨עַ אֲדֹנָ֜יו אֶת־דִּבְרֵ֣י אִשְׁתּ֗וֹ אֲשֶׁ֨ר דִּבְּרָ֤ה אֵלָיו֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר כַּדְּבָרִ֣ים הָאֵ֔לֶּה עָ֥שָׂה לִ֖י עַבְדֶּ֑ךָ וַיִּ֖חַר אַפּֽוֹ׃
(11) One such day, he came into the house to do his work. None of the household being there inside, (12) she caught hold of him by his garment and said, “Lie with me!” But he left his garment in her hand and got away and fled outside. (13) When she saw that he had left it in her hand and had fled outside, (14) she called out to her servants and said to them, “Look, he had to bring us a Hebrew to dally with us! This one came to lie with me; but I screamed loud. (15) And when he heard me screaming at the top of my voice, he left his garment with me and got away and fled outside.” (16) She kept his garment beside her, until his master came home. (17) Then she told him the same story, saying, “The Hebrew slave whom you brought into our house came to me to dally with me; (18) but when I screamed at the top of my voice, he left his garment with me and fled outside.” (19) When his master heard the story that his wife told him, namely, “Thus and so your slave did to me,” he was furious.
(כ) וַיִּקַּח֩ אֲדֹנֵ֨י יוֹסֵ֜ף אֹת֗וֹ וַֽיִּתְּנֵ֙הוּ֙ אֶל־בֵּ֣ית הַסֹּ֔הַר מְק֕וֹם אֲשֶׁר־[אֲסִירֵ֥י] (אסורי) הַמֶּ֖לֶךְ אֲסוּרִ֑ים וַֽיְהִי־שָׁ֖ם בְּבֵ֥ית הַסֹּֽהַר׃ (כא) וַיְהִ֤י יְהֹוָה֙ אֶת־יוֹסֵ֔ף וַיֵּ֥ט אֵלָ֖יו חָ֑סֶד וַיִּתֵּ֣ן חִנּ֔וֹ בְּעֵינֵ֖י שַׂ֥ר בֵּית־הַסֹּֽהַר׃ (כב) וַיִּתֵּ֞ן שַׂ֤ר בֵּית־הַסֹּ֙הַר֙ בְּיַד־יוֹסֵ֔ף אֵ֚ת כׇּל־הָ֣אֲסִירִ֔ם אֲשֶׁ֖ר בְּבֵ֣ית הַסֹּ֑הַר וְאֵ֨ת כׇּל־אֲשֶׁ֤ר עֹשִׂים֙ שָׁ֔ם ה֖וּא הָיָ֥ה עֹשֶֽׂה׃ (כג) אֵ֣ין ׀ שַׂ֣ר בֵּית־הַסֹּ֗הַר רֹאֶ֤ה אֶֽת־כׇּל־מְא֙וּמָה֙ בְּיָד֔וֹ בַּאֲשֶׁ֥ר יְהֹוָ֖ה אִתּ֑וֹ וַֽאֲשֶׁר־ה֥וּא עֹשֶׂ֖ה יְהֹוָ֥ה מַצְלִֽיחַ׃ {פ}
(20) So Joseph’s master had him put in prison, where the king’s prisoners were confined. But even while he was there in prison, (21) יהוה was with Joseph—extending kindness to him and disposing the chief jailer favorably toward him. (22) The chief jailer put in Joseph’s charge all the prisoners who were in that prison, and he was the one to carry out everything that was done there. (23) The chief jailer did not supervise anything that was in Joseph’s charge, because יהוה was with him, and whatever he did יהוה made successful.
ויהי יוסף יפה תואר. כֵּיוָן שֶׁרָאָה עַצְמוֹ מוֹשֵׁל, הִתְחִיל אוֹכֵל וְשׁוֹתֶה וּמְסַלְסֵל בְּשַׂעֲרוֹ, אָמַר הַקָּבָּ"ה אָבִיךָ מִתְאַבֵּל וְאַתָּה מְסַלְסֵל בִּשְׂעָרְךָ, אֲנִי מְגָרֶה בְךָ אֶת הַדֹּב, מִיָּד:
ויהי יוסף יפה תאר AND JOSEPH WAS OF BEAUTIFUL FORM — As soon as he saw that he was ruler (in the house) he began to eat and drink and curl his hair. The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him, “Your father is mourning and you curl your hair! I will let a bear loose against you” (Midrash Tanchuma, Vayeshev 8). Immediately.
וַיְמָאֵן וַיֹּאמֶר אֶל אֵשֶׁת אֲדֹנָיו. זֶה שֶׁאָמַר הַכָּתוּב: בָּרוּךְ הַגֶּבֶר אֲשֶׁר יִבְטַח בַּה' (ירמיה יז, ז). אַתְּ מוֹצֵא כֵּיוָן שֶׁהָיָה בְבֵית רַבּוֹ, וַיְהִי ה' אֶת יוֹסֵף וַיְהִי אִישׁ מַצְלִיחַ וְגוֹ'. וַיַּרְא אֲדֹנָיו כִּי ה' אִתּוֹ וְגוֹ'. וְכִי פּוֹטִיפַר רָשָׁע הָיָה רוֹאֶה שֶׁהַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא עִמּוֹ, וּמַה הוּא כִּי ה' אִתּוֹ. אֶלָּא שֶׁלֹּא הָיָה שְׁמוֹ שֶׁל הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא זָז מִפִּיו. הָיָה נִכְנָס לְשַׁמְּשׁוֹ, וְהוּא הָיָה מְלַחֵשׁ וְאוֹמֵר: רִבּוֹן הָעוֹלָם, אַתָּה הוּא בִּטְחוֹנִי, אַתָּה הוּא פַּטְרוֹנִי, תְּנֵנִי לְחֵן וּלְחֶסֶד וּלְרַחֲמִים בְּעֵינֶיךָ וּבְעֵינֵי כָל רוֹאַי וּבְעֵינֵי פוֹטִיפַר אֲדוֹנִי. וּפוֹטִיפַר אוֹמֵר לוֹ: מָה אַתָּה מְלַחֵשׁ, שֶׁמָּא כְּשָׁפִים אַתָּה עוֹשֶׂה לִי. וְהוּא מְשִׁיבוֹ, לֹא, אֶלָּא אֲנִי מִתְפַּלֵּל שֶׁאֶמְצָא חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ.
But he refused, and said unto his master’s wife (Gen. 39:8). Scripture states elsewhere in reference to this verse: Blessed is the man that trusteth in the Lord (Jer. 17:7). You find that while Joseph dwelt in his master’s home, the Lord was with Joseph, and he prospered, and his master saw that the Lord was with him (Gen. 39:2–3). How did the wicked Potiphar recognize, then, that the Holy One, blessed be He, was with him? In what way was the Lord with him? The name of the Holy One, blessed be He, never left Joseph’s lips. When Joseph entered to serve him, he would whisper to himself: “Master of the Universe, you are the One in whom I trust; you are the One who is my protector, may I find grace, kindness, and mercy in your sight, and in the sight of all who see me, and in the eyes of my master, Potiphar.” Thereupon Potiphar asked him: “What are you whispering about? Perhaps you are trying to weave a spell over me?” “No,” he replied, “I am praying that I may find favor in your sight.” Hence it is written: And his master saw that the Lord was with him.
(ב) לעשות מלאכתו. רַב וּשְׁמוּאֵל, חַד אָמַר מְלַאכְתּוֹ מַמָּשׁ, וְחַד אָמַר לַעֲשׂוֹת צְרָכָיו עִמָּהּ, אֶלָּא שֶׁנִּרְאֵית לוֹ דְּמוּת דְּיוּקְנוֹ שֶׁל אָבִיו וכו' כִּדְאִיתָא בְּמַסֶּכֶת סוֹטָה (דף ל"ז):
(2) לעשות מלאכתו TO DO HIS WORK — Rab and Samuel differ as to what this means. One holds that it means, his actual house-work; the other that it means to associate with her, but a vision of his father’s face appeared to him and he resisted temptation and did not sin as is stated in Treatise Sotah 36b.

The Lonely Moment

By Yosef Y. Jacobson

This is the reason for the Torah’s recording of this story. During our lonely moments of misery, when we, too, may feel that nobody cares for us and we are alone in a huge, indifferent universe, we ought never fall prey to the easy outlet of immoral gratification. We must remember that something very real and absolute is at stake at every moment of our existence and in every act we do.

If you only open your eyes, you will see the visage of your father whispering to you through the silent winds of history that you are not an isolated creature in a titanic world whose behavior is inconsequential. At this very moment, G‑d needs you and me to bring redemption to His world.


This essay is based on an address by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, given on the 19th of Kislev, 5721 (December 8, 1960), published in Sichot Kodesh, Yud-Tes Kislev 5721.

God and Joseph
Words by Woody Guthrie, Music by Arlo Guthrie

Wella, what got Joseph out o’ that hole?
God did, God did!
Who sent that rich man down that road?
God did, God did!
Who took Joseph by his hand
Who took him over to Egypt’s land
Who showed him the dreams of the Pharoah man?
God did, God did!

Who made Joseph high as the king?
God did, God did,
Who gave him power to read your dream?
God did, God did!
Who cause the hunger at Joseph’s home?
Who cause his brothers Three to come?
Who gave back all their money and gold?
God did, God did!

Who made his Father pack up and move?
God did, God did!
Who made him bring his flocks and wives?
God did, God did!
Who made old Pharoah speak to say:
You can dwell with me for all your days!
Who made come true young Joseph’s dream?
God did, God did!