Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, Rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites
In this week?s Torah portion, Vayeshev, we begin to read one of the longest stories in the Torah ? the story of Joseph, Jacob?s beloved and preferred son whose brothers were so jealous of him that they sold him into slavery in Egypt. This week, we read the pessimistic part of the story, stopping when Joseph is jailed in an Egyptian prison because of a story made up about him by his Egyptian master?s wife. Over the next few weeks, we will continue the story with Joseph getting out of jail and rising to greatness due to the Egyptian king.
But how did Joseph end up in an Egyptian prison? Joseph, who was a handsome and talented man, was pursued by his Egyptian master?s wife. Every day she would try to seduce him into sinning with her, but Joseph refused on moral grounds. ?How can I betray the trust of my master?? he told her. ?Now how can I commit this great evil, and sin against God?!” But one day, when Joseph arrived at his master?s house, his wife was waiting for him and she grabbed Joseph?s clothes to drag him to her room. Joseph was frightened, he left his clothes in her hand and escaped the house. She used the clothing she had kept as a basis for her story that he had pursued her. As a result, Joseph was caught and thrown into Egyptian prison.
Did Joseph refuse the indecent proposal as is implied in the story? There are Jewish sages who claimed that Joseph submitted to the Egyptian woman. So says Rabbi Yochanan, the greatest of Jewish sages in the Land of Israel in the 3rd century. ?The two of them were bent on sinning? (Talmud Bavli, Tractate Sota, page 36.) This was also the opinion of Rabbi Yishmael, of the greatest Jewish sages of the 1st century, who said that Joseph came to his master?s house with bad intentions, but at the last moment had a change of heart and ran out of the Egyptian woman?s house. What happened there, and how did this sudden turnabout in Joseph evolve? Rabbi Yishmael answers this question as follows, ?At that same moment, the image of his father appeared to him in the window?? (Talmud Bavli, Ibid.)
Joseph had been sold into slavery long before and he was a long way from the heritage he was raised on ? that of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But suddenly, he saw the image of his father. Did his father?s image actually appear in the window of the Egyptian house? Of course not. Jacob did not even know that his beloved son was living in Egypt. He was sure he had died. How, then, did Joseph see the image of his father in that window?
The answer to that is in the words of the sages of the midrash who tell us (in Genesis Raba 84) that Joseph looked like his father. Now we understand how he saw his father?s image in the window. He saw his own reflection, and in a moment of elucidation, the clouds blurring his consciousness cleared. He realized that the image of his father was not something distant but was part of his own character. Once he reached this realization, it was clear to Joseph that as someone who carried the image of Jacob within him, he could not carry out this betrayal. He stood up and left the room.
Often, our sins stem from an error in our self-image. A person who recognizes his own self-worth knows that he, like all of humanity, was created ?in the image of God?. When he looks at the window, he sees the reflection of an image that stops him from committing a sin and returns him to the straight and narrow path.
Sometimes we ask ourselves if we can move forward. Can we improve? Is there a way for us to get rid of bad habits and bad traits? The Jewish answer to these questions is: Yes, we can! We have the ability to look at the window, see our own reflection, and remember that this is God?s image in whose likeness we were created. And we move forward from there.