Life is experienced in the moment. We live life going forward, yet only understand it looking backwards. The chain of events leading to the present comes into sharper focus. Finally, we recognize that the challenge or crisis we endured was really the springboard to actualize a greater good.

Many unsung heroes and heroines have made an indelible mark of positive difference. One such woman’s name is mentioned briefly in the Torah portion of Mikeitz. “Pharaoh called Joseph’s name Zaphnath-Paneach, and he gave him Osnat, the daughter of Potiphar, priest of On, as a wife.1

There is a tradition in the Midrash that Osnat was the daughter born to Joseph’s sister, Dina, as the result of her having been raped by Shechem. From that violent incident came forth the holy soul of Osnat, who was destined to be the future wife of the righteous Joseph.2

The Midrash states: “What did [Jacob] do? He wrote the Holy Name upon a golden plate, and suspended it about [Osnat’s] neck and sent her away. She went her way. Everything is revealed before the Holy One, blessed be He, and Michael the angel descended and took her, and brought her down to Egypt to the house of Potiphar; because Osnat was destined to become the wife of Joseph. Now the wife of Potiphar was barren, and [Osnat] grew up with her as a daughter.”

When Joseph became an Egyptian ruler, young women would gaze upon him because he was very handsome.3 They would toss gifts at Joseph, hoping that he would notice them. Osnat joined these women, removed the amulet from her neck, and tossed it to him.4 This is how Joseph became aware that Osnat was the granddaughter of Jacob (and Joseph’s niece). They eventually married one another, as it said: “And he gave him to wife Osnat, the daughter of Potiphar, priest of On.”5

Now we are at the midpoint in their life’s narratives. Neither Osnat (a daughter conceived through a heinous act of rape and sent away in shame) nor Joseph (betrayed, sold into slavery and unjustly jailed) could have imagined their future ascent. Who would foresee characters like these being capable of overcoming formidable “emotional baggage,” let alone assuming such illustrious positions? As improbable as it would seem, their inner fortitude and resolve propelled them forward to exalted heights of spiritual achievement.

We admire Joseph and Osnat for not allowing themselves to stay “stuck” in the traumas of their pasts. Instead, they transcended them. From where did this inner strength come? Joseph recognized G‑d’s providence in all that had transpired and, therefore, regarded the perpetrators who maligned him as carrying out their Divinely assigned roles.

Joseph was not embittered by his negative circumstances; rather, he saw them through a wider lens. Each experience contributed to a chain of events, eventually positioning Joseph to become the Egyptian leader—second in command to Pharaoh. Subsequently, Joseph fulfilled his purpose in preventing a famine. He forgave his brothers for executing their parts in his descent to Egypt while testing them to ascertain their sincere remorse.

Furthermore, Joseph’s marriage to Osnat vindicated him regarding the false accusations of Osnat’s adoptive mother against his virtue.6 In allowing their marriage, her adoptive father, Potiphar, conceded to Joseph’s proclaimed innocence. Osnat’s birth and subsequent relocation to Egypt all led to her eventual union with Joseph. Their marriage produced two exemplary sons: Ephraim and Menasheh. Both were raised in exile, outside the pale of Jewish culture. Nevertheless, their parents imbued them with a deep belief in the one G‑d of Israel. Although born and bred in Egypt, the effects of that pagan, immoral culture did not permeate their values. Many people bless their sons on Friday night that they should grow up to be as Ephraim and Menasheh—staunch in their identification as proud, practicing Jews. Even while living in a host culture whose values oppose those of our Torah heritage, we can be empowered by their examples.

Like many of us, Osnat was raised in an environment not conducive to Torah values. Her adoptive mother mirrored and modeled the immoral values of Egyptian society. Her father was a pagan priest. Yet despite her upbringing, Osnat revealed and maintained her inner purity. Through her own efforts, she became the suitable life partner for Joseph, who is extolled for his ability to overcome overwhelming temptation.7

Ma’aseh Avot siman labanim8 —the deeds of our patriarchs and matriarchs are a sign for their children. These are not just stories from a distant past; they provide timeless lessons for us today. The narrative of Joseph and Osnat must empower us now. For we, too, are not merely the products of our pasts nor our families. Neither a positive nor a negative background guarantees the type of future one will have.

The choices we make concerning how to think about and regard our experiences are the strongest indicators of our future achievements. Success and fulfillment are predicated upon how we learn to think. Developing and maintaining a belief in one’s own Divine purpose is paramount to recognizing that Divine providence guides our lives, emboldening us to work purposefully towards revealing and actualizing our own unique inner light.

Making It Relevant

1. Regardless of your background or upbringing, you have a full claim to the Torah’s teachings. Embrace your birthright.

2. Using the examples of Osnat and Joseph, how can you strengthen your inner fortitude and resilience to actualize your inner potential?

3. Rid yourself of past emotional baggage to make room for new blessings. They cannot share your mind’s space.