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Vayeishev

Vayeishev

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The Lonely Moment

A rabbi was bothered by the fact that he had never been able to eat pork. He flew to a remote tropical island and checked into a hotel. He immediately got himself a table at the finest restaurant and ordered the most expensive pork dish on the menu. As he eagerly awaited it to be served, he was shocked to hear his name called from across the restaurant. He looked up to see ten of his congregants approaching. Just his luck—they’d chosen the same time to visit the same remote location.

At that moment, the waiter came with a huge silver tray bearing a whole roasted pig with an apple in its mouth. The rabbi looked up sheepishly at his congregants and said, “Wow—you order an apple in this place, and look how it’s served!”

Joseph’s Drama

This week’s Parshah tells the dramatic story of how Joseph, as an extremely handsome young man, attracted the imagination of his master’s wife. She desperately tries to engage him in a relationship, yet he steadfastly refuses her.

Then came the fateful day “when he entered the house to do his work, and none of the household staff was inside. She grabbed him by his cloak and pleaded, ‘Lie with me.’ He ran away from her, leaving his cloak in her hand, and he fled outside.”

Humiliated and furious, she used the cloak as evidence that it was he who attempted to violate her. Her husband, Potiphar, had Joseph sent to prison, where he spent the next twelve years of his life until, through an astonishing turn of events, he was appointed viceroy of Egypt.

The question is: why was this episode recorded in detail in the Torah? The objective of these Torah chapters is to relate the story of how the first Jewish family ended up in Egypt. Thus, we read about Joseph’s sale as a slave to Egypt, his prison sentence and his encounter there with the king’s ministers. This ultimately leads to his release from prison and designation as viceroy of the country in a critical time of famine, which in turn causes his father and entire family to relocate to Egypt.

Why did the Torah find it necessary to relate the story of Joseph’s ugly struggle with his master’s wife? Why is it important to for us to know the detailed episode that caused his imprisonment?

The Face of Jacob

The Midrash explains the meaning of the phrase that Joseph “entered the house do to his work, and none of the household staff was inside.” What type of work did Joseph come to do?

The Midrash says that the “work” Joseph came to do was to yield to her advances. After all of her unceasing pleas, Joseph finally succumbed to her. However, as the union between them was about to materialize, the visage of his father, Jacob, suddenly appeared to him. This caused Joseph to reject his urge and flee outside.

Here again one may ask: what was it about Jacob’s visage that inspired Joseph to deny such powerful temptation?

The Lonely Slave

Let us reflect more closely on the psychological and physical condition of Joseph during that day when his master’s wife almost lured him into a relationship with her.

Joseph was an 18-year-old slave in a foreign country. He did not even own his own body, as his master exercised full control over his life. Nor did he have a single friend or relative in the world. His mother, Rachel, had died when he was nine years old, and his father thought he was dead. His brothers hated him—they were the ones who had sold him into slavery and robbed him of his youth in cruel fashion. One could only imagine the profound sense of loneliness that must have pervaded the heart of this young man.

This is the context in which we need to understand Joseph’s struggle. A person in such isolation is not only naturally overtaken by extremely powerful temptations, but very likely may feel that a single action of his makes little difference in the ultimate scheme of things.

After all, what was at stake if Joseph succumbed to this woman’s demands? Nobody was ever likely to find out what had occurred between the two. Joseph would not need to return home in the evening to face a dedicated spouse or a spiritual father, nor would he have to go back to a family or a community of moral standing. He would remain alone after the event, just as he was alone before it. So what’s the big deal to engage in a snapshot relationship?

In addition, we must take into consideration the power possessed by this Egyptian noblewoman who was inciting Joseph. She was in the position of being able to turn Joseph’s life into a paradise, or into a living hell. In fact, she did the latter, having him incarcerated for twelve years on the false charges that he attempted to violate her.

What, then, was the secret behind Joseph’s moral rectitude? What empowered a lonely and frail slave to reject such an awesome temptation? “The visage of his father Jacob”! That is what gave Joseph the extraordinary fortitude to smack his impulse in the face and to emphatically dismiss the noblewoman’s lure.

But why? Jacob was living many miles away, unaware even of the fact that his son was alive. What was the magic that lay in his physiognomy?

Adam’s Single Moment

The Talmud presents an oral Jewish tradition that “the beauty of Jacob reflected the beauty of Adam,” the first human being formed by the Almighty Himself. Therefore, when Joseph saw the visage of Jacob, he was seeing the visage of Adam as well.

Adam, we know, was instructed by G‑d not to eat from the fruit of the “tree of knowledge.” His disobeying of this directive altered the course of human and world history forever. Though he did something apparently insignificant, merely eating a single fruit from a single tree, this minuscule act still reverberates through the consciousness of humanity to this very day.

Why? Because every single human being is part of the knot in which heaven and earth are interlaced. G‑d’s dream was not to be alone, but to have mankind as a partner in the continuous task of healing the world. With every action we do, we either advance or obstruct the drama of redemption; we either reduce or enhance the power of evil. Something eternal and Divine is at stake in every decision, every word, every deed performed by every single man, woman or child.

When Joseph saw the visage of Adam, he reclaimed an inner unshakable dignity like a candle of G‑d lit on the cosmic way. Seeing the visage of Adam reminded Joseph how a single act, performed at a single moment by a single man, changed history forever.

This is the reason for the Torah’s recording of this story. During our lonely moments of misery, when we, too, may feel that nobody cares for us and we are alone in a huge, indifferent universe, we ought never fall prey to the easy outlet of immoral gratification. We must remember that something very real and absolute is at stake at every moment of our existence and in every act we do.

If you only open your eyes, you will see the visage of your father whispering to you through the silent winds of history that you are not an isolated creature in a titanic world whose behavior is inconsequential. At this very moment, G‑d needs you and me to bring redemption to His world.

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