Chancellor's Parashah Commentary
Parashat Va-yeishev 5755Genesis 37:1 - 40:23
November 26, 1994 23 Kislev 5755
Ismar Schorsch is the chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary.
Ben Zoma, a second-century sage, died so young that he never attained the title "rabbi." Yet his wisdom exceeded his years. As proof, I offer his tantalizing paradox: "Who is mighty? One who conquers his evil impulse!" How contrary to the popular culture of contemporary America where strength - physical and external - is defined as a manly trait, to be measured competitively. The young Ben Zoma, in contrast, defines strength as an inner quality of a moral nature, equally applicable to women and men. The real challenge of life is not to subdue others but to subdue ourselves. Self-mastery is the epitome of true strength. Ben Zoma spoke in the spirit of the Psalms and our daily prayers:
God does not care for the power of horses nor delights in man's vaunted strength. The Lord delights in those who revere Him, in those who trust in His lovingkindness (Psalm 147:10-11).
The experience of Joseph in Egypt gives us a pellucid instance of self-mastery. Power and sex go together more often than not. (The recent revelations about Mao Zedong's insatiable lust for sex by his long-time private physician are merely an excessive, but not uncommon, tale of exploitation by men in power.) Sold by his jealous brothers into slavery in a foreign land, Joseph had quickly risen to run the household of one of Pharaoh's chief ministers. Though married, Potiphar, his owner, was a eunuch (eiris paroh - Genesis 39:1), the price to be paid for service at the highest level of government. Under Joseph's supervision, Potiphar's estate prospered and he rewarded Joseph with his complete confidence and absolute control over all his affairs. Indeed, Joseph was not only talented and ambitious, but also good-looking. The Torah is not shy about reporting that "Joseph was well built and handsome (Genesis 39:6)."
And so it did not take long for Potiphar's wife to take note of the exceptional foreigner in her midst. She began to court and seduce him. We do not know for how long. The Torah tends to telescope events. Yet it is clear that the circumstances of Joseph's work had taken a dramatic turn. The minister's wife offered Joseph pleasure with impunity and an end to their mutual loneliness. Yet Joseph resisted, day after day. He did not want to betray his owner's trust nor give offence to God. We marvel at his virtue and self-control.
But the midrash probes more deeply. It detects agitation beneath the surface calm of the text. When Joseph returns to the house once in mid-day with no one there but his master's wife, the midrash senses a moment of weakness. Joseph had not come to work, but to play. Official business was but a pretext. He knew the day to be a national holiday at which everyone would be at the local shrine.
Joseph had decided to recant and found the object of his desire waiting for him. Only at the very last instance does he regain his original resolve to beat a hasty retreat, leaving his nameless consort seething for revenge. In the garment left behind in her hand, the midrash perceived a measure of complicity.
The midrash does not leave us in the dark as to what prompted Joseph's sudden reversal of intent. In his mind's eye he had caught a glimpse of the image of his father. What a profoundly human touch! The memory of his father saved him from committing an act that in a more tranquil state he knew to be abhorrent. As the midrash suggests, Joseph had long been mindful that according to the Torah the prohibition against adultery was a universal standard of behavior.
For Joseph, Jacob personified the holy and this, I submit, is the ultimate task of parenting. As parents we must be more than providers or figures of authority or friends or fonts of wisdom or dispensers of comfort for our children. We must also endow them with a sense of holiness that will kindle their own divine spark and enable them to see the sacred in the ordinary. When we bless our children on Friday evenings or at a festival meal with the ancient priestly blessing, we become for them a momentary source of holiness. It is not a task that we should delegate to others more learned or pious, but seek to fulfill ourselves at the earliest stages of their lives and till long after they have reached adulthood. My father pronounced the priestly blessing on me and my sister long after we were married and had our own children. The tender sanctity of those moments has never left me and I have tried to transmit it to my children.
Ritual is a way of giving voice to ultimate values. Each of us needs a sense of holiness to navigate the relentless secularity of our lives. Morality binds only if it is grounded in God. What will guide our children at critical junctures in their lives if we have failed to bestow on them an appreciation for the sacred? Will our image flash on their inner screen as did that of Jacob in Joseph's crisis of conscience? To lay our hands on our children's heads and recite the priestly blessing slowly is to give them a taste of the holy. It is to use the sanctity of the Shabbat meal to unite us with our children in the presence of God and to fortify them for life.
Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,