December 11th-12th, 1998
23 Kislev, 5759
This week's issue is in honor of the upcoming yahrzeit of Mrs. Esther Berger Rabhan,
Esther Rayzel bas Yechiel Yitzhak.
I read somewhere once that Mahatmah Gandhi, in his later years, would demonstrate that he
had conquered his sexual desire by sleeping in the same bed with young girls...and not
laying a hand on them.
I can't remember now what this act of
self-transcendence was termed in Hindi; the article I read used some specific word.
There's a Jewish expression that comes to mind, however: Asking For Trouble.
To work on oneself spiritually and develop one's yir'as chet--fear of sin--is extremely
laudable; to strive for greater and greater levels of self-control is exemplary, and a
necessary part of the spiritual career path of every upwardly mobile Jew (in the spiritual
sense). But to court temptation, to put yourself knowingly in a precarious
situation, even to demonstrate your prowess, is another matter altogether. "Do
not bring us into the hands of error, nor into the hands of transgression and sin, nor
into the hands of a test (nisayon)," we beseech Hashem in one of the morning
blessings, authored by our wise Sages a couple thousand years ago. They understood
the power of the yetzer ha'ra.
In short, we don't look for temptation; we positively
try to avoid it. The (hardheaded) Jewish view is: Better safe than sorry. With due
respect to Gandhi, let the young girls sleep somewhere else!
Now, should a test come our way, of course, we are expected to stand strong and not yield.
The most famous model we have in the Chumash of such self-control is Yosef, and it is in
this very parsha that we see his triumph over the promptings of the flesh.
Sold into slavery by his brothers, who were deeply
suspicious of his motives after hearing him recount a couple of dreams (both of which
symbolically suggested that he would rule over them), Yosef ends up in Egypt. He is
purchased by an employee of Pharaoh--Potiphar, the Chamberlain of the Butchers. He
quickly finds favor in Potiphar's eyes, and is appointed the head of his household.
"And it happened, that from the time he appointed him in his house and over
whatever he had, Hashem blessed the Egyptian's house on Joseph's account..." (39, 5;
Artscroll translation.) Soon, Yosef is managing all of Potiphar's affairs.
"After these things, his master's wife cast her
eyes upon Yosef and she said, 'Lie with me.' But he adamantly refused; he said to
his master's wife, 'Look-- with me here, my master concerns himself about nothing in the
house, and whatever he has he placed in my custody. There is no one greater in this
house than I, and he has denied me nothing but you...how then can I perpetrate this great
evil; it would be a sin before G-d!' And so it was, just as she coaxed Yosef day
after day, so he would not listen to her to lie beside her, to be with her."
(39, 7-10; Artscroll and Living Torah translation.)
Remember: he is 17 years old at this time.
(Younger than a White House intern.) Far away from home and family, in a
country famous for debauchery. With an attractive woman making daily advances on
him...for 12 months, the Midrash states! In fact, both The Talmud and Midrash speak
at some length about these verses, detailing for us just how great a test Yosef endured:
"When she would come to speak with him, he would
bend his head down to avoid looking at her. She [therefore set] an iron spit beneath
his chin, so that if he would bend his head down, the spit would strike him."
(Midrash Tanchumah 8; quoted in Encyclopedia of Biblical Personalities.)
"Every day Potiphar's wife tired to entice him with words. The garments she put
on for him in the morning, she did not wear in the evening, and the garments that she put
on for him in the evening, she did not wear in the morning. She said to him: 'Listen
to me!' He said, 'No.' She said: 'I shall have you imprisoned.' He said,
'Hashem releases the bound.' She said: 'I will bend your stature.' He said, 'Hashem
straightens the bent.' She said: 'I will blind your eyes.' He said, 'Hashem
gives sight to the blind.' She gave him a thousand talents of silver to yield to
her, to lie with her and to be with her, but he would not listen to her..."
(Babylonian Talmud: Yoma 35b)
And there is much more. Honestly, we can't
imagine what such a temptation would be, and we should hope never to have to undergo its
like. The Zohar, quoted in Rabbi Eli Munk's Call of the Torah, is unstinting in its
praise of Yosef's righteousness: "Is there among the virtuous a greater hero than a
young seventeen-year-old surrounded by libertine women who nevertheless maintains his
purity?" (Munk, Volume I, p. 527) Both of his stated motives in refusing
Potiphar's wife are worthy of our emulation: his considerations of loyalty to his master,
and his repugnance for adultery itself--an act forbidden to all mankind in the moral code
given to the sons of Noah, no less than to the descendants of Avraham (Munk, ibid.).
Yet, as the story continues, we find that he only just
squeaked by in the end...perhaps.
"Then there was an opportune day when he entered
the house to do his work--no man of the household staff being there in the house-- that
she caught hold of him by his garment, saying, 'Lie with me!' But he left his
garment in her hand, and he fled, and went outside." (39, 11-12)
What the phrase,"to do his work," means is
the subject of a disagreement in the Talmud, quoted by Rashi. One sage said it means
his actual work; one said that he intended to sleep with her. We can well believe
that after months of resisting, Yosef might have been ready to give up the battle.
If so, what, in the final analysis, gave him the strength--and the good sense-- to
run away? (Note that to flee is often the courageous thing to do!) The Talmud
At that moment his father's image came and appeared to
him through the window and said: Joseph, your brothers will have their names
inscribed upon the stones of the ephod [a garment to be worn by the Kohen Gadol in the
Temple, which had precious stones bearing the names of the 12 tribes] and yours amongst
theirs; is it your wish to have your name expunged from amongst theirs, and be called an
associate of harlots? (Babylonian Talmud: Sotah 36b)
The image of his father, Ya'akov, kept him from
sinning. We might put it this way: at the last moment, Yosef remembered who he was--
a son of Ya'akov.
May Hashem help us to always remember who WE
are--descendants of Avraham, Yitzhak and Ya'akov...and Yosef, who was called by our Sages,
"The Righteous One." If we can learn what this actually means, and always
keep it on our hearts, we just might have the strength to stand up to the temptations of
all sorts that come our way.
LOOK NEXT WEEK FOR WORDS ABOUT
AND PART 2 OF "GRATITUDE."
Insights Into Genesis
Insights Into Exodus
Edelstein is Director
of the Savannah Torah Education Project (STEP). Phone: 912-355-0157;
fax: 912-354-9923; e-mail: Yosef18@aol.com
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touch with us.
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