Genesis 37:1 – 40:23
It’s not like she didn’t know his name.
Joseph, although a slave in Egypt, was the head of Potiphar’s household. Everyone in the house knew him. The other slaves and servants reported to him. Potiphar appointed him. Potiphar’s wife lusted after him.
Joseph refused her advances, and when she grabbed him by his tunic one day, he ran away – leaving it in her hands. She, in turn, set about framing him for rape. When she accused him, first before the other servants and then before her husband, she never used his name. Instead, she called him “that Hebrew” (ivri in Hebrew).
The word ivri is based on the root which means “from over there.” In other words, ivri contains within it the connotation of “other” or “not like me/us.” Potiphar’s wife dehumanized Joseph, she emphasized that he was different, and then she accused him of a heinous crime.
It did not matter that he was innocent, he never had a chance. Our parasha ends with Joseph languishing in Pharaoh’s dungeon.
Torah reminds us no fewer than 36 times that we were once strangers, so that we will empathize with and then care for those who we might think of as “other.” As the world around seems to become more and more like Potiphar’s wife, Torah demands that we hold true to our values, even if it makes us seem like we ourselves are “other.”
“In a place where there are no human beings, [taught Hillel,] strive be one.” [Pirkei Avot 2:5]
This is the how the word ivri becomes a badge of strength and courage, and how we can live up to our great name.
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras