Sunday, December 17, 2006

Parashat Vayeishev - Three out of four is not bad

Parashat Vayeishev

Three out of four is not bad

Parashat vayeishev is broken into four separate stories, each with their own special uniqueness, and details, linked by one common theme, they are all fairly negative and depressing, and feature many levels of human frailty. Three of these stories form an integral chain in Jewish history. One seems to serve very little purpose, on the surface of things.

The first story (chapter 37), of Yosef being sold into slavery is by far the most negative. Yaacov falls into the trap of having a favourite son, Yosef acts as a tale bearer and is arrogant about his dreams and finally the brothers sink to new lows, having already acted poorly in the previous parasha. The purpose of this story is to show Yosef being sent to Egypt, and his brothers feeling the guilt for having hurt their father so badly.

The second story (chapter 38) is of that of Yehuda and Tamar. This story is tragic, in that Yehuda watches two of his sons die, and then his wife dies, and it seems that his line is close to failing. Then he patronises a prostitute, who happens to be his daughter in law, and almost sends his descendants to be burnt. Even at the end of the story when the twins are born, the text implies a difficult relationship between Yehuda and Tamar, that would not have been a great start for their children, considering the trouble Yaacovs children had!! This story interrupts the stories about Yosef to show the birth of Moshiach, the story of final redemption.

Skipping to the fourth story (Chapter 40), here we see Yosef try help the Butler and the Baker, predict each of their sad and happy ends, and beg the Butler to remember him, and he is forgotten, left to rot in Jail. This story provides a link to the next parasha where Joseph gets the chance to save the world.

The third story (chapter 39) is a little more difficult. Here Yosef tries to succeed in a job as a slave, and attracts more attention than he wishes, and is seduced by his master's wife. Although he manages to refuse her advances, and act with honour, he is imprisoned. Yosef's incarceration is important, in that it shows him being sent to prison where he will meet the baker and the butler, but why does the Torah tell us the story of the seduction. Why the details of Yosef's refusal, and of the mistresses plans to punish Yosef. Surely all we need to know is that Yosef was sent to prison for no good reason. What would be missing from the the Torah if we were told this story in just a few verses, like we were for Avraham and Sarah in Egypt.

The Sefat Emet mentions in many of his Drashas on Vayeishev, that the story of Yosef and Potiphar's wife was presented in the Torah to teach about the Yetzer Horah. We have seen examples of individuals making good and bad choices but this is the first time where the Torah presents us the thought processes of someone choosing between bad and good.

This answer deals with the first half of the story, describing Yosef's rise and fall in the eyes of Potiphar's wife, but what about the second half of the story. Here Potiphar's wife schemes as to how she is going to frame Yosef, and then the details are repeated as she enacts her plan. What is the purpose of this narrative?

There are two principle ways our Yetzer Tov fights against the Yetzer Hora.

The simplest way is with reason. When faced with the consequences, we can be swayed. No matter how much we are tempted to steal something, or cheat at something, the results of being caught, of loosing the trust of our friends, of being in trouble with the law, all these things can help to fight your Yetzer Horah.

The more difficult way is to fight your Yetzer Hora with morals and midot. Sometimes, certain things which are wrong, do not have consequences to scare you off. In fact, some times the consequences of the moral choice may be worse.

Yosef knew he was going to get into trouble regardless of his actions. On many levels Yosef even knew he might not really be doing anything wrong by sleeping with this lady. His life was being threatened, and his master's marriage appeared to be a sham (the text implies that Potiphar was a Eunuch), yet he stated that to go ahead with it would be a sin against G-d. The second half of this story comes to demonstrate that Yosef's decision was not based on reason or consequences, as they were far worse as a result of his actions. Yosef fights the Yetzer Horah with pure morals against the voices of reason telling him to give in to his passions, and to play it safe and not risk his life.

By acting with the highest moral integrity, Yosef enters prison with his head held high, a truly innocent man, whose character has not been sullied. This enabled him to greet the butler and the baker with those immortal words "Why are your faces down today?", as a man whose face was held high.

This section of the Torah, dealing with Yosef's rise and fall in the house of Potiphar comes to teach us about the Yetzer Horah, and how to fight it, come out with your integrity intact, and then you can literally save the world, as Yosef did.


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