Weekly Torah Commentary – Vayeshev December 11, 2014

Genesis 37-40

And the wife of his master lifted up her eyes to Joseph and she said ‘Lie with me.’ And he refused, and he said to the wife of his master ‘behold my master does not know anything with me in the house (i.e. he places his full trust in me) and all that is his he has put into my hand. There is no one greater in this household than me (i.e. he has given me the highest authority) and he has not withheld anything from me besides you in as much as you are his wife, and how could I do this great evil and I will have sinned to the Almighty (Gen. 39:7-9).

From this passage we learn from Joseph a profitable insight in how to deal with temptation.

The wife of Potiphar, lusting after Joseph, challenged him face to face.  Keep in mind that Joseph was a young man in his prime, a young man who’d been deeply hurt by his brothers’ betrayal.  He’d suffered the humiliation of being sold as a slave, but by now had been living for some time in a lavish home, enjoying the prestige of being the household manager of one of Egypt’s high-ranking officials, far from the moral and spiritual atmosphere of the home of his father.  This kind of advance by a forbidden woman could easily have swayed a weaker soul.

But what did Joseph do?

Notice his first response to her appeal: “And he refused…” Joseph’s moral compass, his inner integrity remained intact; pain and humiliation had not dimmed the clarity of his convictions.  When faced with this overt temptation to do wrong, his first response was a resounding “No.”

Joseph’s response to temptation stands in stark contrast to Eve in the Garden of Eden. Her mistake was the one we so often make: to engage in a discussion. The moment we allow ourselves to entertain thoughts such as, “Oh, but it will be so nice….Yeah, but you know it’s wrong…Well, maybe just this one time…But how could you do that to…Oh, but I just can’t shake off the desire to…” we position ourselves for failure. Once our desire overrules our resolve and we begin to ‘negotiate’ with ourselves, it becomes much more difficult to do the right thing.

Therefore, our most effective strategy when facing temptation is to avoid the battle altogether as Joseph did.  This can only happen if we have established firm boundaries regarding our personal behavior.  Joseph’s immediate and firm “and he refused…” is our model.

Once that was established, Joseph then points the woman’s attention back to her husband. This is a young man who knows the pain of betrayal.  He isn’t about to do to his beneficent boss, a man who has placed complete trust in him, what was done to him by his brothers. His ‘explanation’ had a very specific purpose.

Joseph understood the principle that winning a single battle does not always mean you’ve won the war.  He knew she would try again and therefore, his exhortation to her is critical and delivered very diplomatically.  He did not accuse her of seeking to betray her husband but the message was clear.  If he would not, surely she shouldn’t.  If she was willing to accept the lesson, her attempts at seduction would cease. But first, she had to hear his non-negotiable, determined refusal.

Unfortunately, his admonition fell on deaf ears as we read in later verses that she pursued him “day after day”. When the day finally came that they happened to be alone in the house and she grabbed his shirt, Joseph wriggled out of it and ran from the house into a public area.  (Gen. 39:11-12)  The time for words was over; he removed himself from the scene immediately.

Joseph’s example applies in every area of life.  Whether we struggle with anger or lustful desires, with bodily discipline or curbing our tongue, the strategy is the same.  Having our personal boundaries clear in our mind and heart enables us, like Joseph, to declare our own firm “no” when faced with compromising those principles.

In Tune with Torah this week = consider any area of your life where you struggle to do the right thing or make the right choices.  Is it because you haven’t established clear boundaries? Self-discipline only works when there is a clear standard by which we have chosen to live.

This is a time of year when many people are thinking about “resolutions” for the new year. It is legendary that most such “resolutions” don’t last.  As we approach 2015, perhaps the only “resolution” we should be considering is that of establishing clear behavioral boundaries, particularly in areas of past struggle.

Shabbat Shalom

2 thoughts on “Weekly Torah Commentary – Vayeshev December 11, 2014

  1. Thank you for new insights from an old story. Not engaging in dialogue when tempted (falling back on an established boundary) and delivering the message of refusal diplomatically from the I position, these are powerful truths when applied to any situation.

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