Thursday, December 6, 2012

Yosef: A True Role Model For Today

Whenever we are reading the parshiyos that discuss the lives and actions of the patriarchs and the fathers of the twelve tribes, I often here people talking about their exalted, holy level of existence, far above our own imperfect way of living. This is usually a result of over reliance on viewing them through a Midrashic lens, interpreting anything potentially problematic in their behavior in a starkly positive light.

However, approaching the Avos and their offspring in this way, in my view, puts too much of a distance between us and our progenitors. By doing this, we place them on a pedestal of spirituality, far our of our reach, and without any realistic models to inspire us to embody their very earthly, though also very spiritual, deeds, characteristics, and beliefs.

I don't mean any disrespect to our admittedly holy and spiritually elevated ancestors, but rather that we should do our best to understand pshat and figure out what we can learn from to apply in a practical fashion to our modern-day lives.

Case in point, Yosef, son of Yaakov and Rachel. He has come to be known in rabbinic writings as Yosef HaTzadik - the righteous - because of an incident in this week's parsha, Vayeishev.

Yosef, a mere teenager of 17 (maybe slightly older, 18, 19) is alone in the morally depraved Egyptian society, a servant to the head of Pharaoh's guards, Potiphar. He enjoys Potiphar's favor, who trusts him implicitly because of his good conduct, and is a model man-servant in his service of his master.

Then his master's wife sets her eye on him.

She begs him to sleep with her. And he refuses - though not without effort. The trop or cantillation on the word "and he refused" - "Vay'ma'ein" is a shalsheles, which undulates up and down 3 times, indicates, per numerous commentators, a great measure of self-doubt and struggle on Yosef's part.

Yet, despite the situation - in which no one would observe them sinning - or the biological fact that he probably had the typical late-teenager's boatload of hormones coursing through his veins, as well as the general immoral atmosphere which pervaded the Egyptian society at large, Yosef turns her down. Not once, not twice, but over and over, and to the point where he flees, as though for his very life, leaving his outer garment in her hand and running outside improperly dressed.

Most of us are aware of the famous reason for his refusal, as cited in Chagiga 36B, that Yaakov's image appeared in the window of Potiphar's house and disapprovingly spoke with Yosef about the consequences of his actions - not unlike Obi-Wan Kenobi in The Empire Strikes Back.

Don't do it, Yosef!
However, this is an Aggadic Gemara, and not indicated in the pshat. As we just learned in Daf Yomi on Shabbos 63A, "the verse never departs from the pshat," even if there is a metaphorical or deeper level of understanding in the Torah's words.

So how does that benefit us in this situation?

Because Yosef was a 17 year old teenager who resisted the often overpowering urge to indulge in physical gratification and defeated the attractive temptation that was repeatedly shoved in his face.

How many of us, as teenagers, let alone now as older, more mature adults, could say that when faced with this sort of "perfect" opportunity to sin, would not give in? Potiphar would never find out, Yosef's family would never find out, it'd be so easy to "get away with it."

And yet, Yosef didn't go down that path. Not only did he refuse to cave, he endured a public scandal that his would-be adulteress lover falsely instigated, initiating a smear campaign that landed him in a dungeon.

How many men of note, famous and well respected, have we heard of in recent years that have failed this test of temptation time and again? If it's not our president, it's the head of the CIA, governors, senators, celebrities, musicians, sports stars, and even some respected religious leaders.

None of these men (and women as well) can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with a 17-year-old Hebrew slave, kidnapped and alone in a foreign country.

Think about that.

Nowadays, the perpetrators of the these immoral sexual dalliances have first and foremost on their mind, "How can I not get caught?" "What's the best way to accomplish my personal physical gratification without causing fallout among my family, friends and supporters?" "What's the best excuse or cover story?" And none of them think about getting caught, or what that will mean, the relationships it will rip apart and the hard-earned trust it will destroy.

Yosef didn't need to worry about that, because it wasn't on his mind. He didn't contemplate how to best achieve his sin - he fought the thoughts that arose in his mind while his seductive master's wife offered her charms again and again. He fought, and won - and when he knew he couldn't fight in the same way he had before - she DID grab his garment, but who knows what else she was doing to him physically at the time - he fled as though his life was in danger.

Though perhaps not in mortal danger, he was in spiritual peril, an immortal danger, if you will, and he had to escape however he could. Though not intact in attire, he was intact spiritually. He won the war, even if was ended up damaging his public image. No matter what the people thought of him, even if Potiphar believed internally that Yosef was innocent (and hence didn't have him executed), it was better for Yosef to have his name tarnished by lies than to tarnish his soul by lying with his master's wife.

If only we could internalize Yosef's strength, pay attention more closely to that internal shalsheles of trepidation at the moment we are tempted to do an aveirah - and like Yosef, listen to it, rather than give in to the suggestions of the Yetzer Hara. Without a doubt, the world would be a better, more moral place.

I think this is a very human, relatable story that helps us connect to Yosef and our forefathers in a realistic fashion. It is possible to resist temptation, no matter what the situation is, especially in matters pertaining to sexuality - one of the most problematic arenas nowadays - and come out stronger, more resilient, and spiritually elevated by our proper choices.

Perhaps we can then also merit the title of tzadik, and better serve HaShem in a renewed, more focused, and dedicated fashion.


  1. One explanation I heard regarding seeing Yaakov's image:

    In those days, mirrors were expensive, and owned strictly by the wealthy. While Yaakov was a rich man, a mirror was probably not available in the local market.

    Yosef grew up rarely seeing his own face, which was said to resemble Yaakov's. When he was in Eshes Potiphar's room, he saw his own face in the mirror, and was reminded of his father.

    Cool, huh?

    Nice touch with Obi-Wan.

    1. I like your explanation a lot. It would make sense in terms of Mrs. Potiphar using that location to makes her offers to Yosef, perhaps as he was cleaning the floor or something.

      The only issue I have is that the Midrashim say it was a window. But this could be explained as a mirror being a window into one's own soul?

      Either way, I've thought of the Obi-wan connection for a while. Glad you enjoyed the reference.

    2. Windows as we know it (being designed from glass) were not exactly in use in ancient Egypt. It's not like Potiphar had Anderson windows installed.

      It could just have been any highly polished reflective surface that Eshes Potiphar's used when was applying her kohl.


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