“The Voice Within Us”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayeishev, we read of the attempted seduction of Joseph by Potiphar’s wife.

Scripture, in Genesis 39:10, describes the relentless efforts of Mrs. Potiphar to seduce Joseph. וַיְהִי כְּדַבְּרָהּ אֶל יוֹסֵף יוֹם יוֹם, וְלֹא שָׁמַע אֵלֶיהָ לִשְׁכַּב אֶצְלָהּ לִהְיוֹת עִמָּהּ, And so it was, just as she spoke to Joseph day after day, that he would hearken not to her or lay beside her or be with her.

And then, on that fateful day when he was alone in the house, Potiphar’s wife caught hold of Joseph by his garment and demanded that he lay with her. The Torah in Genesis 39:12 describes Joseph’s reaction, וַיַּעֲזֹב בִּגְדוֹ בְּיָדָהּ וַיָּנָס וַיֵּצֵא הַחוּצָה, He [Joseph] left his garment in her hand, and he fled and went outside.

When Mrs. Potiphar saw that she had Joseph’s garment in her hand and that he had fled, she called out to the men of her household accusing the Hebrew servant of trying to force himself on her.

Although, under normal circumstances, an Egyptian slave master would have summarily killed the Hebrew slave boy, for various reasons, Potiphar trusted Joseph more than he did his wife. Instead, Potiphar had Joseph thrown into prison, where Joseph successfully interprets the dreams of Pharaoh’s butler and the baker, and is eventually called to interpret the dreams of Pharaoh himself.

The rabbis of the Talmud consider Joseph’s resistance to Mrs. Potiphar’s temptations so great that he is called יוֹסֵף הַצַּדִּיק-“Yosef HaTzaddik,” Joseph, the righteous one.

The Talmud in Yomah 35b even states that Joseph’s unparalleled righteousness serves as a “prosecutor” to all the wicked people.

In the World to Come, the wicked man is asked why he has not occupied himself with the study of Torah. If he replies that he was good looking, and therefore continually exposed to temptations, then the retort is: “Were you really more good looking than Joseph the righteous? Every single day he was approached by Potiphar’s wife who tried to seduce him, changing her clothes from morning to evening. When she begged him to consent to her, he refused. When she threatened to imprison him, he replied, “G-d loosens the bound,” (Psalms 146:7). When she threatened to torture him, he replied, “G-d straightens those who are bent down,” (Psalm 146:8). When she threatened to pluck out his eyes, he replied, “G-d gives sight to the blind,” (Psalm 146:8). She tried to bribe him with a thousand talons of silver, but he would still not come to her…Thus, Joseph in his moral strength serves as a prosecutor to the wicked; by his life he invalidates their excuses.

The standard that Joseph set, is so high, there really is no hope for those who are weak. After all, if the handsome Joseph, estranged from his family and in a foreign land, was able to resist the temptations of Potiphar’s wife, how can anyone who succumbs to temptation be absolved? Joseph truly is the prosecutor to all who give in to temptation and desire.

On the other hand, Rashi, commenting on Genesis 39:11 maintains that Joseph was at the point of giving in to the wife of Potiphar. Suddenly, the image of his father, Jacob, appeared to him, giving him strength to resist.

Rabbi Menachem of Vitebsk in his book, Pri HaEtz, is troubled by the role played by the image of Jacob in Joseph’s successful resistance. If Joseph was restrained from sin only by the powerful manifestation of the vision of his father, how then is it fair to condemn the wicked, who are not favored with such a vision? Why should there be any special merit in Joseph’s purity if he was supernaturally helped?

Although the commentators offer many suggested responses, perhaps the real answer lies in the fact that every person has the ability to invoke such “supernatural” help to resist sin and temptation. Each person has the ability to call upon their own personal collective lessons about right and wrong, about good and evil, that they were taught. Whether it is a lesson taught by a father, a mother, a teacher, a rabbi or a friend, all people have that potential דְּמוּת דְּיוֹקְנוֹ שֶׁל אָבִיו, the image of our fathers, our mothers, our teachers, whose messages forever resound in our minds and hearts, whether or not we were able to hear those messages at the time they were given. Although they may be considered “supernatural,” these teachings usually come from a very natural source; they are the teachings that almost all human beings are exposed to.

While it is true that the teachings of some parents may be, at times, negative and harmful, at some point in life almost everyone is exposed to the constructive and positive messages of life–from a book, from the Bible, from a role model.

And though Joseph was fortunate to have the image of his father appear to him, to aid him to resist Mrs. Potiphar’s temptations, Joseph could just as well have chosen to disregard his father’s message. After all, his father’s actions had caused Joseph much grief in his life. When Jacob’s image appeared to him when Joseph was about to succumb, Joseph could have easily said, “Father, where were you when I needed you? You and your faulty child-rearing philosophy caused my brothers’ jealousy, and resulted in my great suffering. Leave me alone, you’ve done enough damage, I’ll do my own thing now!”

It was Joseph’s stunning decision to follow his father’s instructions that renders him a Tzaddik–a truly righteous person. Joseph’s remarkable righteousness, challenges each and every one of us when we are faced with temptations and need to make difficult decisions. The righteous Joseph serves as an ultimate role model.

May you be blessed.

The joyous festival of Chanukah begins Saturday night, December 24th, 2016, and continues for eight days, through Sunday evening, January 1st, 2017.


Wishing you all a very Happy Chanukah!