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Wednesday, November 17, 2010

An Image for Generations Jerusalem Report 2009

The Torah portion Vayeshev (Genesis 37:1-40:23) (Read on Dec. 12, 2009, the first day of Hannukah)
An Image for Generations
Debbie Shapiro
And it came about on a certain day, that he [Joseph] came to the house [Potiphar's house] to do his work, and none of the people of the house [except Potiphar's wife] were home. So she [Potiphar's wife] grabbed him [Joseph] by his garment, saying, "Lie with me!" But he left his garment in her hand as he fled outside (Genesis 39:11,12.)
In this portion we see that Joseph really earned the unique title of Tzaddik (a holy man.) Orphaned of his mother at age seven and despised by his brothers, he was sold into slavery and ended up in Egypt, far from his beloved Canaan. There, Potiphar, a high ranking minister in Pharaoh's government, purchased him to join his staff of household slaves. Joseph slowly climbs the ranks until, at the tender age of seventeen, he is charged with running his master's household.
The Medrash describes Joseph as being incredibly handsome, to such an extent that when  women saw him, they  would be overwhelmed with desire and whatever they held in their hands would come crashing to the ground.  Potiphar's wife also falls in love with him and, for an entire year, she tries to seduce him.  Joseph is a young man, in the prime of life; yet, even though he is enticed by an incredibly stunning woman, he retains his integrity and refuses to commit adultery.  And when he staunchly resists her charm, Potiphar's wife threatens him with imprisonment --or worse
But even Joseph, the quintessential Tzaddik, reaches a breaking point. "And on that day" – it was a Egyptian festival when everyone went to the temple, and she remained home, claiming sick - "he (Joseph) came to the house to do his work" (Genesis 39:11).   In Tractate Shabbos, Rav and Shmuel discuss what the phrase "to do his work" adds to the meaning of the verse. After all, why else would he come to his master's house if not to do his job?

Rav is of the opinion that Joseph, well aware that Mrs. Potiphar was alone, entered for the sole purpose of giving in to his desires.

But the Gemarah tells us that at that very moment, as he is on the very verge of committing adultery at the height of passion, Joseph sees an image of his father's face reflected in the window. According to Yefei To'ar, a commentary on Midrash, he actually sees his own reflection, which is remarkably similar to that of Jacob. The impact of that image is so incredibly powerful that in that one split second before committing adultery he is forced to face all that he stood to lose by giving in to his desires. Fortified with renewed moral courage, he fights his physical nature as well as Mrs. Potiphar's advances and literally flees the house.

Why was Jacob's image so powerful that it could stop nature in its tracks?

Jacob is always referred to as the epitome of truth – "You shall give the truth of Jacob" (Michah 7:20).  That was his essence; he cleaved to eternity, to that which is true and real, while disdaining falsehood. When Joseph sees his own reflection, which is a mirror-image of his father Jacob, he remembers all that his father had taught him and is forced to face the truth of his actions. That realization is so startling that he flees the house in terror, petrified that if he were to remain for even another split-second, he would give in to his desires and lose that sense of truth.

In his book, Emunat Itecha, Rabbi Moshe Wolfson suggests that this event took place on the first day of Hanukkah. The narrative begins with the phrase, "And it came about on a certain day…"  The words "On a certain day, "KeHaYom," can also be interpreted as "Kaf-heh Yom," "the twenty-fifth day." This is how our sages refer to Hanukkah, since the holiday begins on the twenty-fifth day of the Hebrew month of Kislev.  

The word Hanukkah has the same three letter root as hanakh "to dedicate" and hinukh, usually translated as "education," but referring to instilling the next generation with eternal values -- dedicating them to truth – in addition to pure academic achievement. So Hanukkah is related to both hinukh, to educate, and hanakh, to dedicate.

Joseph sees his father's image in the window; he does not recall a wise saying or a lecture on the value of morality. In his father's face, he sees his father's essence as reflected in his actions and then mirrored in his words. This happened on Chanukah, which has its root in hinukh, the holiday when we instill future generations with eternal values.

"On a certain day" -- the twenty-fifth of Kislev - Joseph sees his own reflection in the window and is reminded that he is a child of Jacob.

Today, on the twenty-fifth of Kislev, as we gaze at the reflection of the Hanukkah candles mirrored in our own windows, we are reminded that we, too, are children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and are inspired to live up to that image.

As a youngster growing up in Northern California, after lighting the Hanukkah menorah, I'd often remain in the semi-dark kitchen, staring at the half-eaten candles, overwhelmed by an emotion I could not articulate or explain.  It was only many years later that I was able to realize that this emotion was the sense of continuity, of belonging to something much greater than myself. My soul was touching something eternal – the reflection of Jacob's image.

That image is so powerful that it can continue to guide us and our descendents to this very day.



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