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IN FLIGHT

by Michael Alterman    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

"Hayam ra'ah vayanos - The sea saw and it fled" (Psalms 114:3).

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"Hayam ra'ah vayanos - The sea saw and it fled" (Psalms 114:3).

What did it see? It saw the casket carrying the bones of Joseph. Hence, the sea fled from before the one who had himself fled - Joseph fled from the temptation of sinning with the wife of Potiphar - as the verse (Genesis 39:12) says, "Vayanas vayeitzei hachutzah - And Joseph fled from the wife of Potiphar and went outside." (Midrash Yalkut Shimoni on the verse in Psalms)

With the Egyptian chariots bearing down upon the Jews trapped on the seashore, a battle waged within the depths of the Red Sea: "Both the Egyptians and the Jews are idol worshippers," the waters claimed, "why should we miraculously split and provide salvation for one nation at the expense of the other?" As the confrontation escalated, the waters caught sight of the bones of Joseph which the Jewish people had brought from Egypt. The sea promptly parted in deference to Joseph's righteousness, leading to the dramatic conclusion of the exodus and the ultimate redemption of the Jewish people from their Egyptian oppressors.

Careful analysis of the words of this Midrash reveals that it was more than Joseph's simply overcoming his desires which the sages deemed praiseworthy. By stressing his "fleeing" from the advances of the wife of Potiphar and comparing it to the "fleeing" of the waters, the sages are declaring Joseph's running outside to itself be a feat of immense proportions. It was his running from sin that differentiated the Jewish people from the Egyptians and galvanized the sea into action.

In fact, the Torah itself seems extremely impressed by Joseph's "flight". In describing the events surrounding his abstention from sin, the verses specifically highlight his "fleeing outside" a total of four times: "She caught hold of him by his garment, saying, 'Lie with me!' But he left his garment in her hand, and he fled and went outside. When she saw that he had left his garment in her hand and fled outside, she called out to the men of her household and spoke to them saying, '. . .when he heard that I raised my voice and screamed, he left his garment beside me, and fled and went outside!'. . .Then she told [her husband] a similar account, saying, '. . .when I raised my voice and screamed, he left his garment beside me, and fled outside'" (Genesis 39:12-18). The repetition in this passage is truly striking and points to Joseph's fleeing outside as the most significant facet of his valiant behavior.

The question remains, what is so impressive about Joseph's fleeing outside that the Midrash should declare it to have sparked the wondrous miracle at the Red Sea? Why does the Torah repeat itself so many times? Along the same lines, why in fact was Joseph so intent on running outside? Couldn't he have spent the few seconds necessary to wrest his garment away from her, instead of carelessly leaving the incriminating evidence in her hands? Finally, how can it be that the entire Jewish nation merited salvation because of one righteous act performed by one man more than two hundred years earlier?

When a person considers something to be of utmost importance, he will do everything in his power to protect it. Parents love their children more than anything in the world. Because of their extraordinary devotion, they take every precautionary measure imaginable to safeguard their children from harm. Similarly, the righteous recognize that our primary purpose and unique opportunity in this world is to develop a meaningful relationship with Hashem. Everything that we do, in every realm of life, has the power to contribute to or detract from that connection. If carrying out Hashem's will is truly important, the righteous are aware of the appalling rebellion against G-d that is inherent in every transgression, and the supreme effort that must be invested towards ensuring that they remain on the proper path. To subject themselves to even the possibility of succumbing to the evil inclination, and distancing themselves from G-d, is simply an act of recklessness which harms nobody more than themselves.

Finding himself in a situation of spiritual danger, nothing was more important to Joseph than escaping outside, away from the wife of Potiphar and the clutches of temptation. Joseph knew that remaining alone with her for even the few seconds it would take to extract the garment from her hands might spell catastrophe; he couldn't trust himself and be certain that he would be able to resist the enticement when fighting it head on. As such, Joseph valiantly fled from the situation, acquiring for himself an appellation which would be his for eternity - Yosef HaTzadik, Joseph the Righteous. Quite an impressive accomplishment for a young man who had been separated from his family and now found himself a servant in the most morally depraved society of the time.

The Jewish people were also exposed to those same corrosive influences in Egypt. Although they were unable to resist all of the pressures, they did maintain their high standards in the area of forbidden relations (see Rashi's comment on Leviticus 24:11). The temptation to mix with the surrounding society must have been enormous, yet they were able to overcome the pressure. Their remarkable victory was made possible by the sacrifices they made to distance themselves from sin, and that dedication was what kept the lines open for a meaningful relationship with Hashem. Carrying with them the bones of Joseph, exemplifying their successfully withstanding the temptations of Egypt, the Jewish people were deserving of the wonderful miracle at the Red Sea.

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Based in part on Sichos Mussar by Rabbi Chaim Shmulevitz, a great Torah scholar and leader of the past generation.

Michael Alterman, who hails from Atlanta, attends Ner Israel Rabbinical College and Johns Hopkins University.

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