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e Lonely Momen
By Yosef Y. Jacobson

It was autumn, and the Indians on the remote reservation asked their new Chief if the winter was going to be cold or mild.

Since he was an Indian Chief in a modern society, he had never been taught the old secrets, and when he looked at the sky, he couldn't tell what the weather was going to be. Nevertheless, to be on the safe side, he replied to his tribe that the winter was indeed going to be cold and that the members of the village should collect wood to be prepared.

But also being a practical leader, after several days he had an idea. He went to the phone booth, called the National Weather Service and asked, "Is the coming winter going to be cold?"

"It looks like this winter is going to be quite cold indeed," the meteorologist at the weather service responded. So the Chief went back to his people and told them to collect even more wood in order to be prepared.

A week later, he called the National Weather Service again. "Is it going to be a very cold winter?"

"Yes," the man at National Weather Service again replied, "it's definitely going to be a very cold winter." The Chief again went back to his people and ordered them to collect every scrap of wood they could find.

Two weeks later, he called the National Weather Service again. "Are you absolutely sure that the winter is going to be very cold?"

"Absolutely," the man replied. "It's going to be one of the coldest winters ever."

"How can you be so sure?" the Chief asked. The weatherman replied,

"The Indians are collecting wood like crazy."

Joseph's Drama

This week's portion (Vayeishev) tells the dramatic story of Joseph, an extremely handsome young man, attracting the lustful imagination of his master's wife. She desperately tries to engage him in a relationship, yet he steadfastly refuses her.

Then came the fateful day, "When he entered the house to do his work and none of the household staff was inside. She grabbed him by his cloak and pleaded 'lie with me.' He ran away from her, leaving his cloak in her hand, and he fled outside (1)."

Humiliated and furious, she used the cloak as evidence that it was he who attempted to violate her. Her husband, Potiphar, had Joseph imprisoned, where he spent the next 12 years of his life until, through an astonishing turn of events, he was appointed viceroy of Egypt.

                                                   What’s the Point?

The question we need to ask is why this episode was recorded in detail in the Torah? The objective of these portions is to relate how the Jewish family ended up in Egypt. Thus, we read about Joseph's sale as a slave to Egypt, his prison sentence and his encounter there with the king's ministers. This ultimately leads to his release from prison and designation as viceroy of the country in a critical time of famine, which, in turn, causes his father and entire family to relocate to Egypt, resulting in the Egyptian exile, which would then lead to Exodus and Sinai.

Why did the Torah find it necessary to relate the story of Joseph's struggle with his master's wife? Why is it important for us to know the detailed episode that caused his imprisonment?

The Face of Jacob

The Midrash (2) explains the meaning of the phrase that Joseph "entered the house do to his work and none of the household staff was inside." What type of work did Joseph come to do? 

The Midrash says that the "work" Joseph came to do was to yield to the advances of his master's wife. After all of her unceasing pleas, Joseph finally succumbed. However, as the union between them was about to materialize, the visage of his father, Jacob, suddenly appeared to him. This caused Joseph to reject the powerful urge and flee outside.

Here again one may ask, what was it about Jacob's visage that inspired Joseph to deny the temptation (3)?

The Lonely Slave

Let us reflect more closely on the psychological and physical condition of Joseph during that day when his master's wife almost lured him into a relationship.

Joseph was an 18-year-old slave in a foreign country. He did not even own his body -- his master exercised full control over his life, as was the fate of all ancient slaves. Joseph had not a single friend or relative in the world. His mother died when he was nine years old, and his father thought he was dead. His siblings were the ones who sold him into slavery and robbed him of his youth. One could only imagine the profound sense of loneliness that must have pervaded the heart of this young man.

This is the context in which we need to understand Joseph's struggle. A person in such isolation is naturally overtaken by extremely powerful temptations, and is also likely to feel that a single action of his makes little difference in the ultimate scheme of things. 

After all, what was at stake if Joseph succumbed to this woman's demands? Nobody was ever likely to find out what had occurred between the two. Joseph would not need to return home in the evening to face a dedicated spouse or a spiritual father, nor would he have to go back to a family or a community of moral standing. This act would not harm his prospects on getting a good sheduch (marriage partner), nor would it get him thrown out of his yeshiva… He would remain alone after the event, just as he was alone before it. So what's the big deal to engage in a snapshot relationship?

In addition we must take into consideration the power possessed by this Egyptian noblewoman who was inciting Joseph. She was in the position of being able to turn Joseph's life into a paradise or a living hell. In fact, she did the latter, having him incarcerated for 12 years in an Egyptian dungeon on the false charges that he attempted to violate her.

The Talmud (4) indeed described the techniques the woman used in order to persuade Joseph. "Each and every day," the Talmud says, "the wife of Potiphar would attempt to seduce him with words. Cloth she wore for him in the morning she would not wear for him in the evening. Cloth she wore for him in the evening she would not wear for him in the morning. She said to him, 'Surrender yourself to me.' He answered her 'No.' She threatened him, 'I shall confine you in prison...I shall bend your proud stature...I will blind your eyes,'" but Joseph refused her. She than gave him a huge sum of money, but he did not budge.

What, then, was the secret behind Joseph's moral rectitude? What empowered a lonely and frail slave to reject such an awesome temptation (5)?

"The visage of his father Jacob"! That is what gave Joseph the extraordinary fortitude to smack his impulse in the face and to emphatically dismiss the noblewoman's lure.

But why? Jacob was living many miles away, unaware even of the fact that his son was alive. What was the magic that lay in his physiognomy?

Adam's Single Moment

The Talmud presents an oral Jewish tradition that the beauty of Jacob reflected the beauty of Adam, the first human being formed by the Almighty Himself (6). Therefore, when Joseph saw the visage of Jacob, he was seeing the visage of Adam as well.

Adam, we know, was instructed by G-d not to eat from the fruit of "the tree of knowledge." His disobeying of this directive altered the course of human and world history forever (7). Though he did something apparently insignificant, merely eating a single fruit from a single tree, this minuscule act still vibrates through the consciousness of humanity to this very day.

Why? Because every single human being is part of the knot in which heaven and earth are interlaced. G-d's dream was not to be alone but to have mankind as a partner in the continuous task of healing the world. By whatever we do, we either advance or obstruct the drama of redemption; we either reduce or enhance the power of evil. Something eternal and Divine is at stake in every decision, every word, every deed performed by every single man, woman or child (8).

When Joseph saw the visage of Adam, he reclaimed an inner unshakable dignity; he remembered that he was a candle of G-d lit on the cosmic way. Seeing the visage of Adam reminded Joseph how a single act, performed at a single moment by a single man, changed history forever.

This is the reason for the Torah's recording of the Joseph drama. During our lonely moments of misery, when we, too, may feel that nobody cares for us and we are alone in a large indifferent universe, we ought never fall prey to the easy outlet of immoral gratification. We must remember that something very real and absolute is at stake at every moment of our existence and in every act we do.

The dignity, hence the responsibility, Judaism bestowed upon the human being, is nothing short than stupendous and extraordinary. In the biblical imagination, individual actions in the privacy of one's bedroom create history. Like the Indian chief’s ambivalent predictions which defined the agenda for the National Weather Service, the human being's moral choices possess enormous power and create an eternal impact.

If you only open your eyes, you too might see the visage of your father whispering to you through the silent winds of history that you are not an isolated creature in a titanic world who's behavior is inconsequential. At this very moment, G-d needs you and me to bring redemption to His world.

(This essay is based on an address by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, given on the 19th of Kislev, 5721, December 8, 1961 (9)). 

E-mail the author at: YYJ@algemeiner.org


  1) Genesis 39:11-12.
  2) Bereishis Rabah 87:7. Tanchumah 8-9. Zohar Vayechi 222a. See also Soteh 36b, quoted in Rashi to Genesis ibid.
  3) The Talmud in Soteh ibid. relates that Jacob warned Joseph that if he consorted with her, his name would not appear with those of his brothers on the breastplate of the High Priest. That is what led Joseph to resist her importunities. But from the Midrash and Zohar cited in previous footnote it appears that it was Jacob's visage per se that inspired Joseph to abstain.
  Even from the wording of the Talmud it seems that it was not only Jacob's warning but also the very appearance of his countenance that caused Joseph to reject his master's wife. Here one must wonder what was the power of Jacob's visage.
  4) Yuma 36a.
  5) An additional point to reflect on is this: Since this story took place before the giving of the Torah, when adultery became forbidden for Jews even at the threat of death, one may argue that in light of the death threats presented to Joseph by his masters wife (see previous footnote), it would have been halachically permissible - perhaps even obligatory - for him to engage in the union (See Benei Yissachar Mamarei Nissan; Pardas Yosef to Parshas Vayeishev; Sichos Kodeash Yud Tes Kislev 5721).
  6) Bava Metzia 84a; Bava Basra 58a. Cf. Tanya Igeres Hakodesh chapter 7.
  7) See Genesis 3:16-24. Talmud Eiruvin 100b. Likkutei Torah of the Arizal Parshas Bereishis. The writings of Kabbalah and Chassidism are actually full with this theme of how Adam and Eve's partaking of the forbidden fruit altered human history for eternity.
  8) See Sanhedrin 37a. Tanya chapter 41. This, too, is a theme that pervades the teachings of Jewish mysticism.
  9) Sichos Kodesh Yud Tes Kislev 5721.

Posted on December 22, 2005
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