The appointment of Yosef to be in charge of Potifar’s home and dealings is followed by his physical description (in terms, as my wife noted, which are usually used to describe women) as “Y’fei to’ar v’yefei mareh” (39:6). Yosef did not suddenly become beautiful -- one is born either handsome or ugly, and while makeup and grooming can enhance certain features, they cannot make an ugly duckling into prince charming. So why interject this description here?
Rashi and Ramban offer different answers. Ramban explains that the description of Yosef’s beauty is an introduction to the upcoming parsha; Yosef’s beauty led to Eishes Potifar’s advances and attempts at seduction. Rashi connects the pasuk to the previous parsha’s description of Yosef’s rise to power. Now that he was released from hard labor Yosef become too focused on his own grooming and appearance.
The Ramban’s approach takes Yosef to be the innocent victim of Eishes Potifar’s attackes, but Rashi opens the door to assigning at least some of the to Yosef himself. Eishes Potifar’s attack was a punishment and perhaps a direct result of Yosef’s flaunting his beauty around the home of his master.
The Netziv follows in Rashi’s footsteps in assigning blame to Yosef, but for a different reason. The Netziv writes that immersion in Torah has the effect of diminishing a person’s external beauty. The statement that Yosef appeared beautiful is the Torah’s subtle way of telling us that Yosef was not as involved Torah as much he should have been. As a result, he lost the miraculous protection which Torah study affords and was tempted and subject to attempted seduction.
One perhaps need not invoke the power of miraculous protection to understand the parsha along the lines of the Netziv. The Hollywood stereotype of the student immersed in books as the nerdy type not caring about appearance or grooming reflects a certain truth. Immersion in study of any sort should focus one’s mind on higher ideals than superficial appearance. Yosef’s concern with beauty tells us that he lost some of that focus; he became a person who cared about appearance and was therefore both tempted by and prey for Eishes Potifar.
I think it is not by accident that it is dmus d’yukno shel Aviv, the image of Ya’akov his father, which appeared to Yosef and brought him back to reality. Despite Keats’ memorable lines on a Grecian urn, beauty is not always true, nor is truth always beautiful. The superficial splendor and beauty of material culture is at often odds the values and truth of Torah. Chanukah celebrates our reliving the test of Yosef and embracing “titein emes l’Ya’akov” over the aesthetic beauty of Yavan.