Of all the patriarchs, only Joseph has been given the title of tzaddik, the righteous one. But the title only raises questions. Joseph is described as a talebearer (Genesis 37:2), reporting to his father his brothers’ misconduct – reportage that is later condemned by the Torah (Leviticus 19:16) as sinful. So if it is possible that someone who commits a wrong can be a tzaddik, the same latitude and the same title should be given to Abraham who mislead others about his relationship to Sarah and to Jacob who connived his way into the birthright. There must be something exceptional about Joseph that merited him the title.
One possibility is his resistance to sin, despite the possibility that he could escape detection. Potiphar’s wife attempts to seduce him yet Joseph refuses to yield to her adulterous intentions even though no one else was around to discover them (Genesis 39:11). Joseph’s steadfastness could have earned him the epithet.
Yet there is another possibility. Perhaps his righteousness relates to the fact that he put others ahead of himself. What constitutes righteousness is not sinlessness but selflessness. Even when he “told” on his brothers it was because he worried over his father’s property. Were his brothers failing to do their jobs, it was his father’s fortunes that would suffer and Joseph could not let that happen. While this may be a generous interpretation of the text, other evidence supports it.
A medieval collection of responsa (Responsa Hokhmei Tzarfat, ed. Cooper, Jerusalem, 1973, No. 181) asks the question: why didn’t Joseph communicate with his father all the while he was in Egypt? The respondent answers that he did not communicate with his father over the two years he was in prison since a message from Joseph would only cause friction in the family. Jacob would blame his sons for Joseph’s predicament and the brothers would blame each other. To avoid family feuding, Joseph remained silent. And once he was released and made viceroy, Joseph still refused to send word back to his family since they would fear his power and disperse rather than risk the wrath of a powerful (and angry) leader who could find them and take his revenge. To avoid the break-up of his family, Joseph remained silent. Joseph’s silence may have been painful to his father but Joseph calculated that any communication would make things worse. Because he put his family first, he was worthy of the title of tzaddik.