We hope you enjoy this selection of short divrei Torah, presented to family and guests at our Shabbos table as a springboard for discussion. Each one is followed by a question. The responses shared at our table are enlightening, entertaining, and always thought-provoking.
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Parshas Vayeishev #1
“And how will I do this great evil, and sin to G-d?” (Bereishis39:9).
Yosef, surely the most unusual slave to reach the Egyptian market, was purchased by Potiphar, a prominent official in Pharaoh’s government. Potiphar soon realized that Yosef had something of a magic touch: “His master saw that Hashem was with him, and everything he did, Hashem made successful.” Pleased with this exceptional slave, Potiphar quickly promoted Yosef, putting him in charge of his entire household. In Yosef’s merit, Potiphar was abundantly blessed. The only area off-limits to Yosef was Potiphar’s marriage and family life (ibid. 39:2-6).
At least under the circumstances, Yosef was doing very well, but trouble soon struck. Potiphar’s wife took a great interest in the handsome young slave, and tried to persuade him to enter into a relationship with her. Chazal describe her many attempts to attract his interest, and failing that, to bribe or threaten him (Yoma 35b). Again and again, Yosef turned her down, saying, “And how will I do this great evil, and sin to G-d?” The pressure on Yosef, day after day, was enormous, and there was no letup. Yosef was a handsome teenager, alone in an immoral country, but he remained strong and resisted temptation (Bereishis 39:7-10).
The turning point came on the day of an Egyptian pagan festival. Everyone but Yosef went out to attend, and Potiphar’s wife saw her chance to catch Yosef alone. She feigned illness, stayed home, and waited (ibid. 39:10-11, Rashi). Yosef headed for the house, ostensibly intending to catch up on the bookkeeping (Bereishis Rabbah 87:7)... but according to one opinion in the Gemara, the pressure and temptation had grown too great even for him (Sotah 36b).
Just In Time
At the last minute, Yosef saw a vision of his saintly father Yaakov’s face, and stepped back. Yaakov warned him that his sin would have grave consequences. In a future generation, the Kohen Gadol would wear the Choshen (Breastplate) set with twelve precious stones, representing the twelve Tribes of Israel. If Yosef gave in to temptation, he would be excluded from the Choshen, forever (Sotah 36b).For Yosef this was enough – he literally ran away from sin, leaving Potiphar’s wife behind. Yosef retained his place in the Choshen as one of the pillars of the Jewish people, and his triumph in the battle against temptation earned him the eternal title of “Yosef HaTzaddik.”
In a profound sense, Potiphar’s wife represents the yetzer hara (evil inclination) which constantly pressures or cajoles us to sin – we too face an endless onslaught from our personal “Mrs. Potiphar.” Yosef HaTzaddik remained loyal both to his master and to Hashem, saying, “And how will I do this great evil, and sin to G-d?” A transgression is not just an instance of improper behavior. It is an act of disloyalty to our own Master, Hashem.
Question for Discussion:
We can learn from Yosef’s example to recognize the yetzer hara for what it is, and fight back. Temptations can be big or small, widespread or very individual: honesty, controlling a bad temper, oversleeping, chronic late coming, or even dieting. What is a challenge that you have faced in the past or present, and what strategy did you implement in your attempt to overcome it?
“And Reuven heard, and he saved him from their hand. And he said, ‘Let us not kill him… Do not spill blood. Throw him into this pit… and do not lay a hand on him.’ [He said this] in order to save him from their hand [and] return him to his father” (Bereishis 37:21-22).
Yosef, following his father’s instructions, went to check on his brothers’ welfare in Dotan. When he arrived, he found himself in serious trouble. The brothers judged him to be deserving of death, and had every intention of carrying out the sentence right then and there. There was only one dissenting voice: that of Reuven, the eldest of the brothers: “And Reuven… saved him from their hand... he said, ‘Let us not kill him… Do not spill blood. Throw him into this pit… and do not lay a hand on him.’” The brothers were convinced that Reuven approved of their plans to dispose of Yosef, but the Torah reveals his true intentions. He only spoke this way “in order to save him from their hand [and] return him to his father.” Reuven prevailed, and while Yosef still had a bitter time ahead, his life was spared.
Chazal provide a thought-provoking insight into Reuven’s actions. “The Torah teaches you derech eretz (appropriate behavior). When a person does a mitzvah,he should do it with a happy heart. For if Reuven had known that the Holy One, blessed be He, was writing about him [in the Torah], ‘And Reuven heard and he saved him from their hands,’ he would have loaded [Yosef] onto his shoulder and brought him back to his father.” If only Reuven had realized, he would have done much, much more to save Yosef.
Chazal cite further examples of this principle. When Hashem commanded Moshe to return to Egypt to liberate the Jewish people from slavery, he was concerned that his appointment as prophet and leader of the nation would be a slight to his elder brother Aharon, until then the nation’s prophet. Hashem assured him that Aharon would not begrudge him his position – he would come out to greet Moshe, “and he will see you and be happy in his heart” (Shmos 4:14). Here too, Chazal tell us that had Aharon known that his reaction to Moshe’s arrival would be recorded in the Torah, he would have done far more: he would have gone out to meet Moshe “with drums and dance” – the equivalent of today’s red carpet and brass band.
Generations later, when Rus accompanied her mother-in-law Naomi to Eretz Yisrael, they were destitute. Rus, a former princess, was reduced to gathering the grain allotted to the poor in the field of Boaz, a relative of Naomi’s late husband. Once Boaz found out who she was, he made sure that she was treated well (Rus 2:1-13). When his workers broke for a meal, he even provided her with food: “and he gave her roasted grain, and she ate” (ibid.2:14). Boaz had been very generous to Rus, a foreigner and a newcomer. Even so, Chazal tell us that had he known his actions were being recorded for posterity, he would have served Rus not roasted grain, but succulent veal! (Vayikra Rabbah 34:8).
Reuven, Aharon and Boaz all did their duty as needed, but no more. Had they realized that their actions were being recorded by the Al-mighty himself, their perspectives would have been different, and they would have extended themselves much further (Etz Yosef ibid.).
The words of Chazal are not intended to denigrate our saintly ancestors, but rather, to serve as a lesson in our own lives. What was true then is true now. “In the past, when a person did a mitzvah, the prophets wrote it down. Now that there are no prophets, who writes the mitzvos down? Eliyahu and the Melech HaMashiach, and Hashem signs on it.” Our mitzvos are important enough to be inscribed and signed by no less than Eliyahu, Mashiach, and the Al-mighty. When we do a mitzvah,rather than looking to simply get by and be done with it, we should give it our all – and be happy to have the privilege.
Question for Discussion:
With this midrash in mind, what is something you should be doing better?