Joseph and Hanukkah: Images of inspiration

Joseph was tempted, his father's image came to the rescue.

Rabbanit Shira Smiles

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Young women study Torah
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Parshat Vayeshev, always read around Hanukkah, includes the events leading to our first exile in Egypt, the sale of Joseph, his enslavement in the house of Potifar, and his imprisonment after being accused of trying to seduce Potifar’s wife.

Potifar’s wife had seen through astrology that her line would be perpetuated through Joseph, so, in addition to Joseph’s stunning beauty, she was overcome with desire for him as a means of fulfilling her destiny. For an entire year she tried to seduce him, and for an entire year he resisted her advances. Finally, on this opportune day, Joseph was about to succumb to her wiles when, according to the Midrash, he saw his father Jacob’s image at the window. At that point, he regained his resolve and fled the house, leaving his cloak behind. Having Joseph’s cloak in her hands gave Potifar’s wife the perfect “proof” to charge Joseph and have him imprisoned.

What was it that Joseph actually saw that gave him the added resolve to continue defying Potifar’s wife? Was this a miraculous intervention, or was there a message here to help us all overcome temptations, especially powerful ones? If we admit this as a miraculous intervention, writes Rabbi Dovid Hofstedter, then how can we indict any sinner who did not have a miraculous intervention? If Joseph was a tzadik, righteous in his own right, how can we explain that seeing his father’s image in a window was what kept him on the righteous path?

It is important to note, as the Talmud Yeryshalmi points out, that all lessons we learn from the image of the father apply equally to images of his mother (and by extension teacher, or other mentor) and, although not specifically noted, are alluded to in the terminology.

That Joseph saw his father’s image was not miraculous, writes Rabbi Ezrachi in Birkas Mordechai. Joseph had already prepared himself to receive this support. He looked into the “window of his soul” and saw therein the values and image of his father. The struggle starts within ourselves. The yetzer horo does his best to trip us up, and we have to do our part to defeat him, adds Ehud Chanan in Torat Chesed. Joseph had withstood the temptation for a full year. But Joseph was human, and his resolve was beginning to crack. Now, after Joseph had remained strong for a full year, he needed help. At this point, the Father sent His presence to help Joseph continue to succeed in vanquishing the yetzer horo.

This is an intervention each of us can access and ask for in our own struggles, writes Rabbi Hofstedter. It is a request for Divine assistance any of us can make in any area we find challenging, adds Rabbi Dunner in Mikdash Halevi, whether we are struggling with proper speech, being charitable, or praying with the proper focus. It is the spiritual bond one maintains with one’s spiritual mentors that guides us through our most challenging moments, our asking ourselves what our parent/Rebbe/mentor would do in a similar situation that paves the way for a proper decision. This was the advice the Ramban gave to his son in his famous letter: “Let my visage be in front of your eyes. … Do not do anything that I despise.”

By bonding with our Rebbe or spiritual mentor, we create a bridge to Hakodosh Boruch Hu Himself and strengthen our fear of heaven, teaches us Rabbi Gifter. Jacob was Joseph’s Rebbe as well as his father, and recalling that bond at a critical moment helped him cross that bridge. This spiritual bond is one we should all maintain when we leave the confines of yeshivah or seminary, admonishes Rabbi Jacob Goldvicht.

Rabbi Grossbard provides another approach. Joseph did not hear the lessons of his father. He saw the image of his father. In other words, the connection was not an intellectual connection, for that would not have been very helpful at the moment. At that moment there was an emotional reaction to the lessons he learned by observing his father, by the yiras Shamayim implicit in the behavior Jacob modeled for his son. In other words, it was not what Jacob said, but what he did that taught his son the greater lessons in life.

How strong was the bond between Jacob and Joseph? The Torah tells us that Jacob was never comforted for what he believed was the loss of his son. Rabbi Wachtfogel presents the argument that Yakov maintained this emotional connection to his son in spite of their separation, and at this most desperate moment, it was this unseen energy of the bond between father and son that supported Joseph and helped him. That’s why, when Joseph later reveals himself to his brothers, writes the Netivot Shalom, he doesn’t ask, “Is our father alive,” but, “My father is still alive”. I have maintained with him, a relationship that has kept me righteous during all the years of our separation.

The influence of a parent or a rebbe continues even after his passing. How often do we hear people say they solved a problem, especially a moral dilemma, by imagining what their father or mother would have done in a similar situation? Potifar’s wife proved to him astrologically that her line would be perpetuated through Joseph. What neither of them knew was that the destiny would be actualized through Osnat, the daughter of Potifera whom Joseph later married, rather than through Mrs. Potifar herself.

Joseph was faced with a contradiction in realities similar to what Avraham Avinu had faced. Hashem commanded Avraham to bind his son as a sacrifice while also having told him that through Isaac would his seed be perpetuated. Joseph was now also looking for a solution outside himself and outside the stars. How could Joseph reconcile the contradiction between the stars and later Torah law? By conjuring the essence of his father, Truth, Joseph was able to withstand the temptation. The truth remained that she was a married woman, forbidden to Joseph, while astrology was certainly not yet real truth. By focusing on the quality his father was associated with, Joseph was able to discern the correct course of action. It is the modeled behavior of the parent that the child emulates, not the parent’s verbal admonitions. Children will learn to do as you do, not as you say.

The Slonimer Rebbe, the Netivot Shalom, expands on our discussion. He notes that the yetzer horo works on multiple levels. It may try to influence you to be lax in a particular area of sinning, it may get you to sin indiscriminately, or, if you are a tzadik with influence over other Jews and you are faced with a moral challenge, it will try to influence you to transgress so that other Jews would then fail in similar challenges. Joseph’s predicament met the third criteria, and his actions influenced diaspora Jews throughout the generations. Because Joseph was able to withstand the temptation of Potifar’s wife, Bnei Yisroel would later be able to withstand the moral depravity of Egypt during the centuries they were enslaved there. Joseph’s strength provided a shield even a thousand years later when Jews remained steadfast and did not succumb to the lures of physicality that formed the foundation of Greek culture.

Rabbi Pinchas Friedman, the Shvilei Pinchas elaborates on the connection between Joseph and the Greeks. We hear of Joseph as not only exceedingly handsome but also as someone concerned with his appearance and “curling his hair”. How could Joseph be so vain when his father was grieving for him? According the Gaon of Shineveh, Joseph, in his righteousness, thought that the purpose of his being in Egypt was to teach the Egyptians something about monotheism. But his appearance as a Hebrew kept them distant from him. In order to have them interact with him and accept him, he decided to dress and appear as one of them. Obviously, that was not a solution, for it precipitated Potiphar’s wife’s advances toward him and almost caused his downfall. Joseph learned that in order to remain pure, one must maintain a separation and distance.

The Greeks did not want to physically destroy the Jews as Haman would want in the Purim narrative. Instead, they wanted to destroy the Jews through assimilation. Symbolically, we can compare the Jews to oil. The Greeks understood that of all the liquids, only oil will not mix with other liquids. Therefore they chose to contaminate and destroy all the oil in the Sanctuary just as they wanted to intermingle the Jewish culture with their own. But Hashem helped the Chashmonaim to retain the purity of Jewish sanctity with pure oil. Joseph had learned that a Jew must retain his separateness from other cultures. This lesson was thus reinforced in the Greek exile with its focus on the oil which will always separate from other liquids and rise to the top.

Further supporting this idea was the edict that the Greeks enacted that Jews were to write on the horns of an ox that they had no place in the God of Israel. Since Joseph is compared to an ox in Moshe’s blessings, Joseph is the counterforce to Greek assimilation. In fact, our tradition states that the Torah Jacob taught Joseph the whole time they learned together in the Yeshivah of Ever, Jacob was teaching Joseph how one behaves to remain a Jew in the diaspora.

Jacob sensed through Divine inspiration that Joseph would be the first Jew to confront exile. As such, his example would serve as a model for future descendants of Jacob. Joseph saw his father’s image, his father’s teachings, through a window, representing the separation that must always remain between Jew and gentile, albeit they can still see each other and interact and even influence the other side without crossing that line.

What was it that Joseph discerned in the window? Per the Belzer Rebbe, Joseph saw the opening of prayer that his father had established, a gate to beseech Hashem’s help when it is difficult to continue. Although each of our forefathers established a prayer, it is Jacob whom we credit with the overriding concept of prayer, who found the gate to heaven and called it the House of God, especially in difficult circumstances.  The image of a window is also a model of prayer, as we find by Daniel in his prayers to Hashem.   Therefore, just as Joseph looked to the window for inspiration, i.e. to be able to access help from Hashem;  we light our Hanukkah candles at the window to access this same energy. On Hanukkah, everyone can access the new, joyous song usually reserved for the Leviim in the Beit Hamikdosh. Hanukkah is the awakening of kedusha.

Hanukkah is the time we can ask Hashem to give us special help in overcoming our spiritual challenges, access the sacred light and rededicate ourselves to the sanctity and purity the oil signifies, writes the Sichot Hitchazkut.

What was it that Joseph saw? Mrs. Potifar had the rarity of a mirror near her bed, similar to a polished pane of glass. Joseph saw his own reflection there, writes the Torat Chesed. He saw his striking resemblance to his father, and was prompted to ask himself what his father would do. That gave him the strength to run away from the situation.

At the moment of lighting the Hanukkah candles, continues Rav Tzvi Meyer Silverberg, the sparks of the souls of all one’s ancestors stand alongside him, uplifting him and praying that he too will pray to uplift their souls. Each of us is an important link in an eternal chain. May we remain strong links so that we will soon merit to sing a new song as we make a chanukat habayit, a dedication of our rebuilt Beit Hamikdash and light the menorah within with pure olive oil.