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Self-mastery: Joseph and the key to resisting seduction

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayeishev, Joseph is sold by his brothers and is taken to Egypt where he becomes the servant of Potiphar, one of Pharaoh’s ministers. Potiphar recognizes Joseph’s fine qualities and appoints him head of his household. But Potiphar is not the only one who is cognizant of Joseph’s virtues and appeal. Potiphar’s wife develops a powerful attraction to Joseph, and she tries persistently to seduce him.

Joseph resists her advances, which was no easy task. She propositioned him daily, and every day he refused. But eventually, she wore him down. She was extremely persuasive, he was completely alone. One day, when there was no one in the house, Joseph finally relented and was about to engage in intimacy with his master’s wife. But at the last moment, something caused him to refrain. He pulled himself together, pulled himself away from her clutches, and ran from the house.

“And it came about on a certain day, that he came to the house to do his work, and none of the people of the house were there in the house. So she grabbed him by his garment, saying, ‘Lie with me!’ But he left his garment in her hand and fled and went outside” (Genesis 39:11-12)

What is it that enabled Joseph to abstain from this trespass in the very moment of passion? How did he resist? What guidance does Joseph’s story provide us to assist us in avoiding the seductions and temptations that frequently threaten to lead us into corruption, addiction, and lack of self-control. Rashi tells us precisely what it was that provoked Joseph’s sudden change of heart.

שנראית לו דמות דיוקנו של אביו
She’niris lo dmus deyokno shel aviv.
His father’s image appeared to him.
(Rashi on Genesis 39:11)

Rashi refers us to the Gemara in Tractate Sotah which explains the moment in more depth. “At that moment his father’s image came and appeared to him in the window. The image said to him: Joseph, the names of your brothers are destined to be written on the stones of the ephod, and you are to be included among them. Do you desire your name to be erased from among them, and to be called an associate of promiscuous women?” (Sotah 36b).

According to this Gemara, it was the image of his father and this prospect of losing his holy standing that convinced Joseph to overcome his momentary urges and to maintain his integrity. One can certainly imagine that if his father suddenly appeared before him in a moment of weakness and reminded him of his responsibilities and of the consequences of his actions, this would be a powerful incentive to keep him on track.

But what if one’s father does not miraculously appear? What of those of us who are not gifted with Joseph’s vision, and no such image presents itself to us when it is most needed? Of course the implication here is that it is not only the appearance of an actual image of our parent that can aid us in such moments. But rather that we all have the ability to call to mind the mental image of our parents, our forebears, and all of those who we respect and to whom we would like to show honor. This respect for one’s people, and for his heritage and ethical code is a powerful motivator.

Yet it might be noted that this allegiance to one’s traditions and this deference to one’s parents is not as potent as it was in generations past. From the 1960’s onward, there has been a movement toward personal freedom, spiritual exploration, and self-expression. The image of one’s father may not have the same effect on one’s decisions as it did for Joseph and for those throughout history prior to this era. In other words, what if the image of the Patriarchs does appear in our mind’s eye, and yet this appearance does little to nothing to dissuade us from self-destructive behavior?

There is another reading of the story which provides a somewhat more personal and internal perspective. The standard translation of Rashi’s wording “she’niris lo dmus deyokno shel aviv” is “there appeared to him the appearance of the image of his father,” as we have discussed. Yet the phrase can also be translated “it appeared to him that the appearance of his image was of his father.” In other words, what appeared to Joseph at that moment was that his own image was that of his father, the Father of all, Hashem.

In that moment, Joseph suddenly remembered that he was created in God’s image:

ויברא א-להים את־האדם בצלְמוֹ בצלם א-להים ברא אתו
Vayivra E-lohim es ha’adam b’tzalmo, b’tzelem E-lohim bara oso.
And God created man in His image; in the image of God He created him
(Genesis 1:27)

I am a portion of God, he remembered. The image of God is within me, it is what I a truly am. With this realization of his Godly core and essence, he was able to resist his master’s wife’s seduction.

“She grabbed him by his garment… he left his garment in her hand and fled and went outside” – what is this garment that she grabbed and that he left with her? The Zohar (Breishis 190b) relates this garment to the evil inclination, which is something that is appended to each of us, but is not the true essence of who and what we are. Our physicality is a garment for our soul, a vehicle which enables our infinite being to operate in this finite space. This garment is holy when it is sanctified, but it can also be sullied when we allow it to define us and direct us. Potiphar’s wife grabbed on to Joseph’s garment, but Joseph, suddenly aware that he was the divine image that wears the garment, shed it and left it empty in her embrace. “He ran outside,” beyond the constraints of the material realm.

This was Joseph’s power and his greatness. He was able to descend to the lowest and most debased aspects of this world and to nevertheless maintain his Godliness. This, the Lubavitcher Rebbe teaches, was the advantage that his father Jacob saw in him which made him “favored” over his brothers. It’s not that Jacob loved Joseph more than his other children, but rather that he foresaw that the nation of Israel would need to live within the depths of the world in order to purify and elevate it. While Joseph’s brothers were shepherds who kept their distance from the other nations in order to focus on their spiritual development, Joseph had the ability to descend to the chaos and corruption of Egypt and to become a leader who maintained his faith and integrity.

Joseph was able to do so because he was cognizant of the image of God within him. He recognized that “demus deyokno/the appearance of his image” was “shel aviv/of his father,” Hashem. He understood that the “garment” that his soul wears is a holy garment. The physical world is not evil, nor is it to be avoided. It is to be engaged, and when this is done properly, we can reveal the Godliness within its every aspect, and we can thereby transform it to the garden that it was originally created to be.

Derived in part From YOU, an introduction to the deepest depths of the human experience based on the esoteric teachings of Torah.  www.pneihashem.com

About the Author
Pinny Arnon is an award-winning writer in the secular world who was introduced to the wellsprings of Torah as a young adult. After decades of study and frequent interaction with some of the most renowned Rabbis of the generation, Arnon has been encouraged to focus his clear and incisive writing style on the explication of the inner depths of Torah.
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