Temptation abounds in our lives. Every day we are faced with some challenge to our faith, and we try to overcome that enemy.
Temptation abounds in our lives. Every day we are faced with some challenge to our faith, and we try to overcome that enemy. And sometimes, it seems just about impossible. Our sages tell us, however, that for every sin we might commit, the Torah gives us an example of someone who fought off that very same desire. If we feel greedy, we can look to Abraham, who made sure he paid a more-than-fair price for Sarah’s burial place, despite the fact it was offered to him for free. When faced with abundant feelings of pride, we remember that Moses was called the most humble man of all time, despite his face-to-face conversations with the Almighty. When we question G-d’s miracles, we look towards Nachshon ben Aminadav who, fully confident that Hashem would save the Jewish people, was the first to walk into the Red Sea, going until the water was at his neck, before the sea split.
And when we are faced with physical desires and temptations, we can look to Joseph for guidance. Joseph was in charge of Potiphar’s entire household in Egypt. He very easily could have convinced himself that he had rights to everything in the house, including a relationship with Potiphar’s wife, as immorality and adultery was commonplace in Egypt at that time. Joseph serves as the prime example of someone who had every opportunity and reason to go against Hashem’s word – he was stuck in Egypt, the moral cesspool of the time, a handsome young man, with a beautiful woman who desired him, with no apparent consequences for his transgression. However, he refrained from transgressing, at which point the Torah uses the upbeat cantellation of the shalshelet trop (Genesis 39:8) to denote his tremendous triumph over the evil inclination. What an example for us all!
However, the commentators make an interesting and troubling comment on Joseph’s resistance. We are told that Joseph was about to succumb to his temptations when he suddenly saw a vision of his father, Jacob. Upon seeing the saintly figure hovering above him, Joseph gained the extra strength needed to resist his temptations.
This Midrash is somewhat disturbing at face value. How can we turn to Joseph for inspiration when he himself needed the vision of his father to rescue him from sin? What about us; can we expect to overcome our desires without such a shocking revelation? How can our example of resilience have nearly faltered, only to be saved by a miracle?
Somehow, we have to understand that Joseph, indeed, saved himself. We must understand the story somewhat differently. In a land permeated with impurity, Joseph was able to bring the vision of his father with him. It’s not so much that Joseph actually saw the figure floating in front of him; he had so engrained the ideals of his father within himself that, even when faced with the depths of impurity, he was able to evoke the teachings of his father to ward off sin. Throughout his whole life, Joseph had worked to internalize the holiness of Hashem’s word, and when he was tested he was able to resist, because of how entrenched his father’s lessons were in his heart. This is precisely the lesson we must learn from Joseph.
Every day we are tested, not only by immediate concerns, but in making decisions and preparing for the future. The lesson of Joseph is not the ability to resist temptation one time, but to constantly guard against it, appreciating every word of Torah, every idea of Hashem, and internalizing those ideas of holiness. So when we are faced with temptation, we do not need an external miracle to save us, but we merely need to look inward to find a vision of hope.
Steven Schwartzberg, a graduate of Yeshiva Atlanta, writes from Harvard University.
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