What Joseph teaches about resisting temptation

Genesis 37:1 – 40:23
Amos 2:6 – 3:8

When Joseph is a slave in the home of Potiphar, he resists temptation even in the most difficult circumstances, forever becoming a model for the human ability to resist.

If a wicked man were to suggest that a temptation was just too much for him to withstand, he would be asked, “Were you really beset by more temptation than Joseph?” At 17 years old, enslaved and far from home, Joseph is subjected daily to Potiphar’s wife’s attempts to seduce him. She is said to change her clothing morning and night, beg him to consent, threaten him with torture and prison, and even attempt to bribe him. Joseph repulses her advances, and in so doing becomes forever an accusation to the wicked.

Still, Rashi tells us that Joseph is on the verge of succumbing when the image of his father, Jacob, appears to him and strengthens his resolve. (Genesis 39:11) Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk, in “Pr’i HaAretz” (p. 11), asks the obvious question: “If Joseph was restrained from sin only by such a powerful sign as a vision of his father, how is it possible to indict those who have not had the benefit of such a vision?”

At the beginning of this week’s parashah, Jacob expresses a desire to dwell in peace and immediately the tragedy of Joseph unfolds. G-d asks, “Is it not enough for the righteous that they will have Paradise? Must they also have ease in this world?”

Does G-d begrudge the righteous peace in their lifetime? Surely, Jacob would have used the tranquility to devote himself to the service of G-d. Future generations, however, might strive for tranquility as an end in itself, for its own sake. Contentment is so appealing that a precedent by Jacob could be distorted by his descendants. To pursue tranquility as an ultimate goal is an error. The ultimate goal should be to do the will of G-d regardless of the stresses and hardships a person may face.

The path to perfection in this world is steep and rugged. The world to come is the fitting time of rest and peace, reward for the unremitting struggles of this world.

Jacob had faced two forms of temptation before meeting up with his murderous brother Esau. Jacob prays, “Please save me from the hands of my brother, from the hands of Esau.” (Genesis 32:12) The redundancy is explained in this way: Jacob’s prayer is not only for himself but also for all of his descendants to be saved from the grasp of the nations who would be spiritual descendants of Esau. (Beresheet Rabbah 76:5) These nations would materialize in both of Esau’s guises, that of the “brother” approaching with overtures of friendship leading to assimilation, and that of Esau, the murderer and persecutor, aiming at the physical destruction of the Jewish people. It seems that Jacob considered the former possibility more formidable.

In the beginning of the 19th century, more than half the Jewish population of Berlin was voluntarily baptized, responding to the new environment of freedom, “enlightenment” and friendship. Sadly, we all know how that story ended. Fifty-six years after the United Nations agreed to the establishment of the state of Israel, we have been witness to obscene U.N. declarations and unprecedented international togetherness in abhorrence of the Jewish state.

The story of Muhammad and Martin Luther and many others turning violently on the Jews after initial overtures of friendship underlines the need to fear the fickleness of the nations.

Now we can glean some insight into Potiphar’s wife “changing her clothes morning and night.” This represents the instability of the relations between the Jews and the nations. In the morning all may be sunshine and tolerance, followed by the evening of darkness and violence.

The outstanding characteristic of Jacob was truthfulness. This enabled him to conquer evil in all of its guises, the temptations of friendship and persecution. He was not daunted by Esau the pursuer, or by his “brother” Esau.

This light of truth has been a legacy to all of Jacob’s children. The image of Jacob is not a special privilege of Joseph, but it is hidden in all of us, which is why Joseph remains an “accusation for the wicked.” We must all summon this vision of truth to help us in moments of confusion. It is this unerring vision that can penetrate and expose all of the many manifestations of evil.

Shabbat shalom.

Rabbi Pinchas Lipner is dean of the Hebrew Academy in San Francisco.