Parashas Vayeishev

In the second half of this week’s parashah, the Torah relates Yosef’s experiences in Egypt. In particular, it discusses how Potifar’s wife tried to seduce him, and describes his struggle against this challenge. The Torah states (Bereishis 29:10): “And so it was, as she spoke to Yosef day after day, that he did not listen to her, to lie beside her, to be with her.” The Torah then continues (ibid. 29:11): “And it came to pass, on a certain day, that he came into the house to do his work, and none of the men of the household was there in the house.” In Bereishis Rabbah 87:7, the Midrash presents an opinion interpreting the phrase “to do his work” as indicating that Yosef went into the house with the thought of consorting with Potifar’s wife – he was on the verge of succumbing to the temptation. At that moment, Hashem showed him a vision of his father Yaakov’s likeness. This vision cooled Yosef’s passion, and he held back from sinning.
The Maggid links this episode to the Gemara in Sukkah 52a, which teaches that a person’s evil inclination grows stronger every day, and that a person would be unable to overcome it without Divine help. He notes that the second part of this Gemara seems to be at odds with the Gemara in Berachos 33b, which says that “everything is in the hands of heaven except the fear of heaven.” The Gemara in Berachos 33b indicates that a person is expected to cope with his evil inclination without help from heaven, while the Gemara in Sukkah 52a indicates that a person cannot overcome his evil inclination without such help.
The Maggid resolves the conflict though an analogy to a sage teaching an earnest disciple. It is the way of a teacher to challenge his student. He gives him a series of written lessons to learn, each harder than the next, to gradually build up his understanding. Periodically, he decides to push the student up to a completely new level. He then gives the student a lesson that is beyond his reach, lets him struggle with it until he reaches the limit of his capabilities, and then steps in and helps him overcome the hurdle.
Similarly, Hashem augments a person’s evil inclination every day, presenting him with a new challenge. Usually these challenges are within a person’s capacity to handle, so Hashem does not extend any special help. Instead, He leaves the person to grapple with the challenge on his own, in accord with the principle that “everything is in the hands of heaven except the fear of heaven.” A righteous person musters all his strength to meet these challenges, and usually he prevails. But, on certain occasions, Hashem decides to push a person up to a completely new spiritual level. He then gives him a challenge that is beyond his reach, and lets him struggle with it. When He sees that the person is doing his utmost to meet the challenge, He steps in and extends special help – a person who strives to purify himself receives Divine aid (ba litaher, m’sayyin oso, Yoma 38b).
This is how it was with Yosef in his struggle against the advances of Potifar’s wife. Day after day she coaxed him, and, as she pressed him more and more, he fortified himself more and more. Initially, he simply avoided spending time with her; as she stepped up her advances, he avoided even looking at her. But eventually Hashem made the temptation so strong that it was beyond Yosef’s capacity to withstand it. Yosef fought with all his might, but he was on the verge of succumbing. Hashem saw that Yosef, in his righteousness, had done his utmost. He therefore stepped in and extended special help; He showed Yosef the vision of Yaakov’s likeness, thereby enabling him to overcome the temptation and prevail.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

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