We’re all heroes if you catch us at the right moment.
– Hero (1992 film)<1>
The most famous example in the Chumash of successfully overcoming temptation is Yosef’s refusal to be seduced by Mrs. Potifar. The question is how he managed to do it. As a Roman matron once asked a rabbi, “How could Yosef, who was seventeen years old and in the full heat [of youth], possibly do this [resist such strong temptation]?”<2>
The midrash gives a brief but intriguing answer:
“[It was] through the courageous Yaakov” (Bereisheet 49:24). Rav Huna said in the name of Rav Matnah: [Yosef] saw the image of his father, and his blood ran cold.<3>
The gemara describes the vision of his father’s face in a more dramatic way:
“[Yosef] came to the house to do his work” (Bereisheet 39:11). Rav and Shmuel [argued about this pasuk]. One said it was to do his actual work. The other said that [the pasuk is a euphemism which means] it was to fulfill his [sexual] needs.<4> . . . [Yosef and Mrs. Potifar] got into bed naked.<5> At that moment, the image of his father came and appeared to him in the window.<6>
What prompted Yosef to imagine his father’s face? There are two possibilities – something external or something internal. How could it be external? Well, the pasuk (Bereisheet 37:3) that says Yosef was Yaakov’s ben zekunim (the child of his old age) is creatively reread by the midrash to say that they shared ziv ikunin (the same good looks, the spitting image) – in other words, they resembled each other.<7> If so, perhaps Yosef saw his own face reflected in the window, and that reminded him of his father.<8>
While that’s possible, the simple understanding of the midrash and gemara is that it was something internal that inspired Yosef. He overcame temptation by picturing Yaakov and what he represented. What exactly did his father represent to Yosef? We will present three approaches – religious, moral, and loving.
According to the gemara, when Yosef saw his father’s face, he also imagined Yaakov speaking to him:
“Yosef, in the future your brothers’ names will be written on [the stones of the breastplate that the kohen gadol will wear on top of] the efod. Your name will be among them. Do you really want your name to be removed from theirs [because] you will be associated with prostitutes?”<9>
This was a rebuke on religious grounds. The image of Yaakov evoked the future Beit HaMikdash and reminded Yosef that he was destined to be a part of it, as long as he didn’t reject his family’s values. This implies that earlier, when Yosef was growing up, what Yaakov and his family spoke about was the future of Judaism and their role in it.<10> Such spiritual grounding gave Yosef the hope for the future that helped him do the right thing.
A second approach says that to Yosef, his father represented moral values. Ideally, we look up to our parents and view them as moral exemplars. That way, even if our parents are no longer with us, they can help us make difficult choices. When faced with a moral dilemma or temptation, we can ask ourselves: “What would my father do? What would my mother say?”
Interestingly, in the continuation of the midrash which suggests that seeing Yaakov’s face prevented Yosef from sinning, a second opinion is presented:
Rabbi Menachema said in the name of Rabbi Ami: [Yosef] saw the image of his mother, and his blood ran cold.<11>
According to this, Yosef’s mother Rachel was the one whose face he saw when he needed the strength to do the right thing. For someone other than Yosef, it might have been a sister or brother whose face appeared. Compare this powerful example from the Holocaust, which came up in a shiur of Dr. Bryna Levy at Matan in Yerushalayim:
One of the women in the class explicates this midrashic text: “My brother and I were taken from Belgium to Auschwitz. Just before we were parted, my brother said, ‘We will never see each other again, so let me teach you one midrash about Joseph and Jacob. Whenever life will present you with moral dilemmas, see my face and you will know what to do.’ It is this midrash which served to guide me through many lonely and difficult ordeals,” the student explains.
I find myself amazed by the power which this midrash has given to this woman. Joseph for her was a survivor, one whose world was held together through his moral resolve which he transported from his father’s house. It is tempting to view this midrashic text as classic example of Freudian superego, but in fact it goes far deeper. Jacob was the moral anchor which neither temptation, loneliness, nor evil could destroy.
In the silence which envelopes our classroom following this moving recollection, we realize that our friend has captured the power of Torah. This midrash served as her anchor, her link with her brother who was taken from her, with her forebears, perhaps; but it was also her bridge into the future, a future which, in Auschwitz, could only be considered a wild dream. It was Joseph the slave who left Europe with her; Joseph the dreamer who accompanied her to her new life; but Joseph the stone in the Ephod who sits in our shiur today.<12>
The implication is that we should try to find a role model whose image can inspire us. In the words of Rav Chanan Porat, a pioneer of yishuvim who became a Member of Knesset:
You should create inside you a model with whom to identify, “the likeness of his father’s image,” on whom you can lean as a strong, solid rock in the middle of a stormy sea. It can be the image of your father or mother, your rabbi or friend. The main thing is that the person evokes your longing for what is good and noble. Someone who can whisper to you at a time of crisis: “You’re not alone, my dear beloved one, and it’s not too late.”<13>
A third, out-of-the-box approach to what inspired Yosef can emerge from one more opinion in Chazal as to whose face Yosef saw. Here’s the formulation in the Yerushalmi, after it cites the opinion about Yaakov’s face:
Rabbi Avin said: [Yosef] also saw Rachel’s face.<14>
In other words, what inspired Yosef to just say no was seeing the faces of both his parents. It wasn’t either one separately but both together. Once when I gave a shiur and presented this opinion, a grandmother in the class raised her hand and suggested the following:
Yosef was about to give in to the temptation of sex without love. Then he remembered his parents, who had a loving relationship. That inspired Yosef to hold out for love – he saw in his parents that love is worth waiting for.<15>
The appeal of this approach is that it connects whom Yosef saw with the specific temptation he needed to overcome.
Whether Yosef saw the image of his father, his mother, or both together, what is important is that he was able to draw on the role models of his past to preserve his present and ensure his future. I wish the same for all of us.
1. David Webb Peoples, screenplay for Hero (1992 film). The speaker is John Bubber (played by Andy Garcia).
2. Bereisheet Rabbah 87:6.
3. Ibid. 98:20. The word for “image” here is ikunin or ikonin, which is related to the English word “icon.”
4. Rav Levi ibn Habib (1480-1545), who was the Chief Rabbi of Yerushalayim, points out that the gemara is not criticizing Yosef, but rather praising him for overcoming his yetzer hara (temptation) even though he came so close to giving in. See She’elot uTeshuvot Maharalbach #126, s.v. od.
5. The previous sentence is in the Ein Yaakov’s version of the gemara, not the standard version.
6. Sotah 36b. The phrase for “the image of his father” here is deyukno shel aviv. When Rashi cites this gemara (including Rav and Shmuel’s argument) in his commentary on Bereisheet 39:11, he uses the phrase demut deyukno shel aviv (the likeness of his father’s image).
7. Bereisheet Rabbah 84:8. Also cited by Rashi on Bereisheet 37:3.
8. See Rav Yosef Chaim (“the Ben Ish Chai”), Benayahu on Sotah 36b (p. 238 in the newer edition). See also Rav Chaim Sabato, “Bravo!” Jewish Action, Fall 5771/2010, pp. 56-57. https://www.ou.org/jewish_action/08/2010/bravo/
9. Sotah 36b.
10. Rav Gabi Kadosh, “Deyukno Shel Aviv Nir’atah Lo BaChalon,” Katif-Net website, Vayeshev 5766. Unfortunately, this dvar torah is no longer accessible online.
11. Bereisheet Rabbah 98:20.
12. Dr. Bryna Jocheved Levy, “Sense and Sensibilities – Women and Talmud Torah,” Jewish Action, Winter 5759/1998, pp. 21-22. http://www.ou.org/publications/ja/5759winter/sense.htm Reprinted in Ora Wiskind Elper, ed. Traditions and Celebrations for the Bat Mitzvah (Jerusalem: Urim, 2005), pp. 324f.
13. Rav Chanan Porat (1943-2011), “Demuto Shel Abba BaChalon,” M’at Min HaOr #629 (2 Kislev 5772), p. 2. http://www.tora.co.il/parasha/meat/vayeshev_72.doc
14. Talmud Yerushalmi, Horayot 2:5.
15. Tamar Finberg, in my parashah shiur for Matan Beit Shemesh, December 15, 2006.