Yosef, one of Yaakov’s twelve sons, finds himself a slave in the house of Potiphar in Egypt. This extremely handsome teenage boy becomes very successful, soon running his master’s house. He attracts the attention of Zelicha, the wife of his master. Over the course of a year she repeatedly attempts to seduce him. She sweet talks him, dresses up for him, bribes him. When that doesn’t work she threatens to blind him, imprison him, even to kill him. He refuses her wily charms day after day.
Finally, there is a festival day when everyone is out of the house worshipping at the temple and the two of them are left alone. Yosef begins to falter and nearly succumbs to her appeal, but at the last moment he refuses and runs away.
Where does this unbelievable strength and resolve come from? Here is a young lonely boy, sold into slavery by brothers who hated him. His mother had died, he is alone in the foreign land of Egypt, in the house of Potiphar. He is in a vulnerable position, at the whims of his mistress. How does he manage to resist the temptation?
The Gemara, Sotah 36b, tells us that when he was in her chamber about to yield to her seduction he saw his father’s visage in a window and stopped, then ran away.
One opinion writes that it was the spirit of his father that appeared to him and spoke to him. Another interpretation holds that it was more literal, it was his own reflection in the window that he saw. Yosef was the spitting image of his father, so when he saw himself he was reminded of his father and it grounded him.
A third approach says that he saw a picture of his father, he conjured up an image in his mind. In a continuation of this midrash, it is actually the face of his mother Rachel that he sees. According to the Talmud Yerushalmi, Horayot 2:5, it was both of their faces together.
Either way, his parents were not physically present telling him what to do or how to behave. Yet by envisaging their faces, he was stopped in his tracks. By imagining the presence of these role models he could ask himself, “what would my father do? How would he react in this situation? What would my mother want me to do?”
We want our children to follow our values. We want to raise them to be able to do the right thing not just in our presence when we are telling them how to behave, or watching over them, but even when they leave home in the future.
Yosef’s parents were guides for him even in their absence. Such is the effect that every parent can have on their child. In order to be strong role models for our children, we need a basis of love and respect. Our kids need to care enough about what we think to want to ask themselves – what would my father or mother do in this situation?
As Alison Gopnik writes in the introduction to her book The Gardener and the Carpenter, “Caring for children is like tending a garden, and being a parent is like being a gardener.” Parenting is about creating fertile soil, planting seeds, adjusting to the weather conditions so that over many years, through hard work and sweat we can plant values and establish a loving relationship to provide our children with a framework, a moral compass both inside and outside of the home.
Through small steps every day we can grow this loving relationship, plant the seeds of our values and morals. It is not to say that in the future our children are necessarily going to have the same values as us, or make the same choices, but our desire is that they should at least look up to us as role models and ask themselves the question-what would my parents do in this scenario?