“She caught him by his garment saying, ‘Lie with me!’ But he left his garment in her hand and he fled, and he went outside.”
– Beresheet 39:12
The beauty of Joseph and his superior ability, which raised him from the low state of servitude to the level of being almost the master of an Egyptian estate, made a powerful impression on the mistress of the house. She continually pestered him with obvious advances and coquetry, but Joseph resisted them adamantly. The Torah records four times the same phrase, “He fled and went outside” (ibid. 12, 13, 15, and 18). The recurrence of this sentence with the same words must have a special significance.
The word “vayanas” (he fled) appears in another context, as well. In its poetic description of the parting of the Red Sea, the book of Psalms says, “The sea saw and fled (vayanas)” (Psalm 114:3). The Midrash notes this reiteration of the same verb and explains that the sea parted – it fled – at the sight of Joseph’s coffin. This implies that it was because of the merit of Joseph who fled from the temptation that the sea parted and fled. The reward for Joseph’s firm stand before sin by fleeing from the seductress was that his people would force the sea to flee before them.
The connection between these two events is that they share a common element. Both the parting of the Red Sea and Joseph’s ability not to succumb to temptation are unnatural. One does not expect the sea to part and leave dry land behind and neither does one find people who can resist temptation with such clarity. Joseph acted in a way that defied his material nature, and so did the Red Sea act against its own natural laws. The lesson of this story is that a human being has the spiritual capacity to overcome his baser instincts and rise to a level of wisdom and discipline.
The lesson of Joseph’s story is that a human being
has the spiritual capacity to overcome his baser instincts
and rise to a level of wisdom and discipline
The strength to withstand the seductive powers of pleasure stems from a clear vision. The Midrash has the following parable to illustrate the scene of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife: “This can be compared to a female bear that was standing in the marketplace adorned with precious stones and pearls and they announced, ‘Whoever will climb on her back will get all the jewels.’ A wise man standing by said to the people, ‘You are looking at the jewels but I am looking at her claw!’” (Beresheet Rabbah 86). Temptation wins when we look at the immediate reward rather than the long-term consequences of our acts. Joseph was able to resist temptation when he saw the face of his father Jacob in front of him, and he heard that if he succumbed to her lures he would not be among the pillars of his people. Joseph saw beyond the pleasure of one day and reflected on the eternal damage he would suffer. His eyes were not on the “jewels” but on the “claws” of the parable.
Joseph stood above Nature and therefore it was appropriate that the Sea would follow suit and act against Nature for the benefit of Israel, Joseph’s people. This is hinted at in the words “went outside,” meaning that he went outside his own nature and inclinations. This is the key to a successful battle against the yetzer ha’ra (the instinct to pursue pleasure or the pleasure principle). A famous psychiatrist once remarked that the greatest enemy of personal improvement and growth is the phrase “This is the way I am.” There is no greater obstacle to self-improvement than to believe that one is imprisoned in the limitations of his or her own nature. To grow, one needs to “go outside.”
The evil inclination always comes at us with the notion that we cannot change, that we must act as we did before, even if we acted wrongly. When we decide to be moral, the yetzer ha’ra mocks us: “You are going to be ethical?” When we move towards becoming religious, the yetzer ha’ra taunts us, “You cannot do that! It’s not you.” The Satan wants to keep us always in the same place, not to move outside of ourselves. On the contrary, moral improvement comes when we can think out of the box, when we can imagine ourselves to be different than we were before. When obsessive thoughts or immoral temptations call us, we must direct them away from us, as if they had the wrong address. When the destructive ideas knock on our doors, we should greet them with the notice, “That person does not live here anymore.” Take away the power of temptation by the ability to go outside, to “change addresses” without leaving a forwarding address.
Resisting temptation creates its own spiritual power. When we feel our energies depleted, when we are indecisive and insecure, the result of resisting temptation is an increase in our ability to make decisions and gain security and self-esteem. Like Joseph, we are all endowed with a Divine capacity to overcome nature. We must believe in our willpower and this in itself will increase our willpower. Studies have shown that people who believed their willpower was limited were more likely to give in to temptation. If you believe you can resist temptation, you are more likely to succeed. Every time we say “no” to a desire or lust, we build our willpower by developing a new synapse in our brain and by increasing our good inclination (yetzer ha’tov).
The power that overcomes Nature is evident in the miracle of Hanukkah. The oil that could last, by the laws of nature, only for one day was sufficient for eight days, thus overcoming the natural order or, in our imagery, by going outside the boundaries of its own kind. The story of Hanukkah represents the history of the Jewish people. We are a nation that defies the laws of history and nature. Our history is miraculous, too; it exists above Nature as our endurance bewilders many a scholar and historian. Only a mind tuned in to phenomena such as the miracle of the jug and countless others throughout our past can understand it. The celebration of Hanukkah is a testament to the power of the Creator Who is Master of Nature and History and of His infinite and unbounded Majesty. He Who made miracles for our ancestors in the past will continue to perform miracles for His children in every generation.
Rabbi David Algaze is the founder and Rav of Havurat Yisrael, Forest Hills. He is a noted public speaker and author and is the President of the international Committee for the Land of Israel.