Vayeishev: Images and Integrity

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayeishev

Egads! Hanukkah fast approaches, but Shabbat is almost upon us, and then it’s
another
big holiday when all the stores are closed- my only conclusion is that it’s time
to relax and
say “enough already” and make yourself a cup of Earl Grey and study some Torah.

Speaking of Torah, It’s parshat Vayeishev, the beginning of the final act of the
drama that
is Bereshit (Genesis.) Bereshit begins with brothers killing each other (Kayin
and Hevel) and
it looks like we haven’t learned much in previous 37 chapters: Yosef so angers
his
brothers that they plot to kill him, but are instead convinced to “only” throw
him in a pit
and sell him into slavery.

The brothers tell their father, Yaakov, that Yosef was torn apart by a wild
animal, but really
he was shlepped off to Egypt as a slave. Yehudah, one of his brothers, marries
and has
children, who themselves marry. Then tragedy strikes: Yehudah’s sons die in
succession,
and he refuses to properly provide for his bereaved daughter in law, Tamar. She
is
determined to have children, so she seduces him in a dangerous deception, which
ends in
his confession of sin and recognition of her merit.

Then we return to Egypt: Yosef is a slave to Potiphar, whose wife tries to
seduce him. He
refuses, and is framed and imprisoned. He becomes a dream-interpreter in prison
and is
raised up to the house of Pharaoh himself.

Returning to the subject of seduction (a steamy parsha for a cold day outside!),
the rabbis
ask an interesting question: if Yehudah- an older and presumably wiser man-
could not
resist the temptation to sleep with the harlot beside the road (who was actually
his
disguised daughter in law, but we’ll save that for another year), is it possible
that Yosef,
who had the “hot blood of youth”, could resist the temptation of Potiphar’s
wife?

A famous midrash- quoted by Rashi and many others- tries to answer that
question, and
starts with the verse where Yosef has to make his decision:

“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 [Mrs. Potiphar]
grabbed him by
his garment, saying, “Lie with me!” But he left his garment in her hand and fled
and went
outside. (Bereshit/Genesis 39:11-12)

Some commentators say that the Torah is hinting that Yosef was just about to
give in: that
the phrase “came to the house to do his work” means that he came to the house
knowing
that the only person in it was his master’s wife, and he was ready to lie with
her. So what
caused him to run away?

Well, it’s certainly possible that he was simply afraid that consequences of
giving in would
be worse than the consequences of refusing. The ancient rabbis have a different
idea : the
midrash I mentioned above imagines Yosef just about to lie with Mrs. Potiphar,
and then
he sees before him an image of his father, Yaakov, who asks if he really wants
to be
associated with “harlots.” (Just as an aside: one could return to the question
asked above
and turn it around- if Yosef could call up reserves of conscience and
self-control, why
couldn’t Yehudah? Alas, that’s a question for another day.)

Our midrash imagines that the image of Yosef’s father appeared to him at a
crucial
moment, and caused him to reconsider not through a rebuke, but by a question: is
this
really what you want? I think there’s a deep truth in this story: what we call
conscience
often takes the form of a question embedded in a cherished relationship. Let me
give you
an example: in rabbinical school, I once heard a dean say that his guide to
actions as a
rabbi and rabbinical school administrator was to imagine his own mentor standing
in the
room with him. My teacher’s question, directed to himself, was: would my
cherished
teacher approve of what I’m about to do or say?

There are big, difficult books which attempt to lay out a philosophical
foundation for
ethical action. Similarly, there are religious teachings, articles in psychology
and sociology,
and all sorts of other attempts to think about what it means to act in ways that
are
consistent and good. These books and articles can be incredibly helpful in
thinking about
one’s own moral inventory, and I don’t at all mean to discount intellectual
resources in
developing one’s ethical depth.

Yet there is another form that conscience takes, and that is the form of those
we admire.
We all have our moral heroes- people we experience as good, as people of
integrity,
generosity, and a consistent moral compass. So sometimes we ask: what would my
(fill in:
grandfather, teacher, rabbi, mother, aunt, neighbor . . . ) think of what I’m
about to do?
Would they be proud of me? Could I look that person in the eye tomorrow and tell
them
exactly what I did?

This more intimate, intuitive form of conscience is how I understand what the
rabbis are
teaching about Yosef’s experience: in seeing his father, he forced himself to
ask questions
about family values, moral legacy, and true integrity. There is never “nobody
else in the
house” when we are forced to confront difficult temptations- we are always
accompanied
by the spirit of those who have inspired us, and who can continue to guide us
spiritually
long after we are separated physically.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

PS- we’ll have a short Hanukkah message on Sunday morning or early next week. In
the
meantime, you can find the text and additional commentary on Vayeishev here:

http://www.hebcal.com/sedrot/vayeshev.html

and Hanukkah customs and history here:

http://www.kolel.org/pages/lobby.html

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