23 Nov VAYESHEV: THE LONELY MOMENT
It was autumn, and
the Indians on the
asked their new
chief if the winter was going to be cold or
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
“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
“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.”
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 .”
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
Prime Minister of Egypt.
WHAT’S THE POINT?
Why is this episode recorded in detail in the
Torah? The Torah is not a book of history and
biography in the literal sense. It emits most
of the events of its protagonists, beside those
that are essential to convey a specific lessons
to the reader. Even when it tells a story, it
emits any details not relevant to the theme.
(Abraham got involved in a war between nine
kings. What exactly caused the five kings to
rebel against the four and trigger a worldwar? The Torah does not tell us. What did
Isaac tell Rebecca when he discovered that
Jacob took the blessings? What did Jacob tell
Leah when he discovered she deceived him?
The Torah does not tell us).
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
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
THE FACE OF JACOB
The Midrash 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
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 at last 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. He left his
garment in her hand and he fled outside.
What was it about Jacob’s visage that inspired
Joseph to deny the temptation ?
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 a 17-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 and modern 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 and
liberty. One could only imagine the profound
sense of loneliness that must have pervaded
the heart of this lad.
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
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 in an Egyptian dungeon
on the false charges that he attempted to
violate her. If it was up to her, he would have
remained there for life.
The Talmud 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 is more, 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 master’s
wife, it would have been halachically
permissible, perhaps even obligatory, for him
to engage in the union !
What, then, was the secret behind Joseph’s
moral rectitude? What empowered a lonely
and frail slave to reject such an awesome
“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
The Talmud presents a tradition that the
beauty of Jacob reflected the beauty of
Adam, the first human being formed by the
Almighty Himself . 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 . 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 .
When Joseph saw the visage of (Jacob which
reflected 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
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.
You may view your individual actions in the
privacy of your bedroom as insignificant. Yet
in the biblical imagination, these decisions
create history, not unlike the Indian chief’s
hesitant predictions which defined the truth
for the National Weather Service.
If you only open your eyes, you will 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
whose behavior is inconsequential. At this
very moment, G-d needs you and me to bring
redemption to His world.