Parshat Vayeshev

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In this house … he has not withheld anything from me except you, insofar as you are his wife.
Now how can I commit this great evil, and sin against G-d?” – (Joseph in Gen 39:9)

 One of the great rabbis once complained to G-d about the difficult struggle Man must constantly undergo on this world. “Dear G-d,” he complained, “if only You would have put all the worldly temptations inside the Hebrew books and dense tomes, and put the joy, pleasure and reward of the mitzvot out in the world for all to see, we would all be angels! Instead we are surrounded by temptation and must always struggle not to sin.”

However although we can all understand this complaint – it would appear that it is exactly that struggle which G-d desires from His creatures. Our Sages understand the purpose of our existence to be about the never-ending battle we have with our conscience. We live in a world filled with pitfalls and temptations, and must weave our way through life, hopefully avoiding as many of them as possible. Yes, sometimes we fail, but failure is not the end of everything, it should instead be a catalyst for repentance and the motivation to do better in future.

Our Scriptures pull no punches about leaders who succumbed to temptation. We are told in Kohelet, “there is no righteous man on Earth who has never sinned.” And our leaders who gave in to temptation are not spared the ignominy of being recorded in the Bible for posterity. Sin, and you pay the price of infamy when you get caught.

One of the more well known such incidents in the Tanach is the saga of King David and Batsheva, and in this week’s parsha we read of the inappropriate liaison between Yehuda and Tamar, and there are so many more. The Torah is telling us very clearly that the human condition is one where we must continually struggle with temptation, sometimes winning and sometimes losing, but always continuing the struggle to be better. G-d has no need for more perfect angelic beings, of which He has many – He created specifically imperfect humans as part of His Divine plan. For as explained in the kabbalistic works this very human struggle against temptation gives G-d immense pleasure. The very fact that we inhabit a world where G-dliness is concealed (to the extent that there are many who even deny the existence of G-d) but nevertheless we follow the rules He has set out for us in the Torah, gives G-d great satisfaction.

And so in this week’s parsha we read of Yehuda who gives in to his temptation, and Joseph who does not – despite repeated seduction attempts by Potiphar’s wife; and even about Joseph the Midrash tells us that he very nearly gave in to his desires, until he saw a vision of his father’s face (Jacob), which brought him back to his senses and he fled the room.

As fallible humans we will constantly be confronted with moral and ethical challenges. We are the only ones who can make the right or wrong decisions about our personal behaviour, and the Yetzer Hara – the little voice in our head pushing us to sin – is very skilful at his job. However from Joseph in this week’s parsha, and from other great men and women throughout our history, we learn to say that one small word that can protect us from many big sins … No!

For if we are controlled by our animal instincts, unable to ever say no, then we are nothing more than animals which happen to walk upright. But when we can withstand temptation by using our mind to control our emotions, then we become truly human…  fallible, but human.

Shabbat Shalom, and a Happy Chanukah,

Rabbi Zalman Lent

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