May their memory be a blessing (Shabbos 66)

Despite being a lowly Egyptian slave, Yosef had an air of grace and beauty about him.  As he walked down the street each day, the young ladies in Egypt would compete to catch a glimpse of his beauty.  But one woman knew that he would be her prize alone.  At the time, Yosef was working for Potiphar, and his wife had become obsessed with him.  Each day, she would make advances, making it really difficult for Yosef to concentrate on his job, let alone his spirituality.

One day, he couldn’t take the pressure anymore and decided to give in to her desires.  Suddenly, he looked up to the window and saw an image of his father watching over him.  Some say he saw an image of his mother.  At that point, he girded his loins and resolved to conduct himself according to the moral and religious standards of his parents.  He fled from the grip of Potiphar’s wife and escaped out into the street.

אָמַר אָבִין בַּר הוּנָא אָמַר רַבִּי חָמָא בַּר גּוּרְיָא: בֵּן שֶׁיֵּשׁ לוֹ גַּעְגּוּעִין עַל אָבִיו — נוֹטֵל רְצוּעָה מִמִּנְעָל שֶׁל יָמִין וְקוֹשֵׁר לוֹ בִּשְׂמֹאלוֹ. אָמַר רַב נַחְמָן בַּר יִצְחָק: וְסִימָנָיךְ — תְּפִילִּין, וְחִילּוּפָא סַכַּנְתָּא

Avin bar Huna quoted Rav Chama bar Guria: If a child longs for their parent and has a difficult time seeing them depart, one should take a strap from the parent’s right shoe and bind it upon the child’s left arm.  Rav Nacḥman bar Yitzcḥak said: And the symbol is tefillin. And the other way around is dangerous.

The Derash Moshe (Shabbos HaGadol) sheds light on this enigmatic Gemara: The passing of a parent is extremely distressing.  A part of you is gone and no matter what you do, you will never be able to bring them back.  What can you do to maintain their presence in your life?

Taking a strap from their right shoe is a metaphor for following in their footsteps. Traditionally, the concept of the right represents the path of righteousness, while the left symbolizes sinfulness.  You take the strap from their right shoe and bind it upon your left arm.  In other words, when you envisage the approach of your parents, your desire to act contrary to their values will be curtailed.

The different opinions regarding who Yosef saw is meaningful. Fathers and mothers tend to represent different aspects of our relationship with our heritage and upbringing.  In Judaism, family tribal status follows the father.  The vision of Yosef’s father symbolizes his fear of breaking with the family tradition going back generations.

The symbolism of a mother is one of love and care.  It’s not simply about maintaining your spiritual place on account of fear.  The image of a mother serves as a reminder that our Judaism should be filled with love and joy.  That’s the role of the Yiddishe mama – to ensure that the fear of Heaven is balanced with the love of Heaven. The temporary pleasure Yosef may have received from this immediate act of indiscretion would not compare to the feelings of love that he would be forsaking by going down this path.

In some people’s homes you’ll see a portrait of a Torah giant they hold in high esteem.  For such individuals, the idea is similar.  They hope that the image of their rebbe will serve as a constant reminder of the values they seek to live by.  In fact, in certain Chasidic communities, instead of swapping baseball cards, the children trade rebbe pics!  The objective of such games is to etch the images of these Torah teachers in their tender minds, ready to recall at their time of moral uncertainty.

Rav Nachman teaches that this idea is just like tefillin.  You bind the straps of the tefillin upon your left arm, symbolizing the restraining of temptation to sin.  Indeed, the tefillin must be directed towards the heart, the proverbial seat of one’s emotions.  Tefillin is one of those mitzvos that we don’t know the reason for.  But certainly, the symbolism of binding the word of God upon our hearts and minds is a powerful start to the day.

The Gemara concludes that the other way around is dangerous.  Our natural instinct is to think that we know better than our parents.  They lived in an older generation that didn’t understand the world the way we do.  And so we attempt to fit their traditions into our own worldview.  Instead of binding our own desires, we tie down and constrain their values to fit our view of life.  That’s a dangerous approach and their lives and values risk becoming a distant memory.

That’s the meaning of the phrase, ‘May their memory be a blessing.’ Every life decision should be a Yosef moment, where one asks oneself, ‘What would my parents do?  How would they feel about my choices?  Will this approach make them proud?  Am I following in their footsteps, even if that means tying down and restraining my personal desires?’  May your parents be bound to you forever and may their memory be an eternal blessing!

About the Author
Rabbi of Hampstead Garden Suburb Synagogue, London, UK.
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