Parshas Vayeishev (5776)
“Joseph was handsome of form and handsome of appearance” (39:6).
Some of you guys reading this might wish that you were as incredibly handsome and good-looking as the biblical Joseph was. The Torah tells us that Joseph was so handsome that when he became viceroy of Egypt, the girls would climb atop walls just to catch a glimpse of his beauty (see Genesis 49:22).
Yet this beauty caused the young Joseph a lot of trouble. You see, when he was running the house of Potiphar, the Chamberlain of the Butchers, his master’s wife would try to seduce him daily, but Joseph repeatedly refused her advances. Until one day when there was no one in the house besides Joseph and Potiphar’s wife and she grabbed on to his garment and said “Lie with me!”. Joseph’s resistance had all but cracked in the face of this incredible temptation, and he was about to sin with her, when at the very last moment, he garnered the inner strength and resolve to wiggle out of his clothing and run outside, leaving the garment in her hands (see the rest of the story for yourself in Genesis 39:1-19). We learn from this Bible story that beauty is not all it’s cracked up to be, as it can often create major tests and temptations in life.
I would like to share with you an incredible ‘story within a story’ about the challenge of physical beauty and how a great man overcame it just like the biblical Joseph – as quoted by Rabbi Yitzchak Zilberstein shlit”a from the book Ish Chassidecha about the life and times of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Bender ZT”L:
It was the summer of 1914, when a young student by the name of Yitzchak Krakowsky from the city of Lodz, Poland, registered in the yeshivah (rabbinical academy) in Makov. He was known as "Reb Yitzchak’el Otvozker", because of the time he had spent in the city of Otvozk due to a lung condition from which he suffered. He was only sixteen years old, but his youth extended only to his chronological age. As a scholar, he was well beyond in years, soon becoming one of the foremost scholars in the yeshivah. His sagacity was captivating, his profundity in Torah knowledge was exemplary.
The Rosh HaYeshivah’s (Dean’s) shiurim (lectures) were well known for their depth and brilliance. Yet, when the Rosh HaYeshivah would begin to say the shiur, Reb Yitzchak’el would soon complete his ideas. It got to the point that the Rosh HaYeshivah felt there was nothing more he could teach this young prodigy.
Reb Yitzchak’el was blessed with a physical appearance that was remarkably beautiful. His face shone, his high forehead seemed to glow. Indeed, his total physical image was captivating. Here was a human being who was outstanding in his physical and intellectual capacities. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Bender, who was with Reb Yitzchak’el in the yeshivah at the time, once related how it came to pass that this exceptional young man was blessed with such an enchanting physical appearance:
It happened that Reb Yitzchak’el's parents came to the yeshivah to take their son home. The winds of World War I were beginning to gust. While it would not be safe anywhere in Europe, they wanted their child at home with them. When the parents arrived, all the boys were shocked at the physical appearance of Reb Yitzchak’el's father. He was the extreme opposite of his son. While the son was tall, erect and handsome, with radiant skin that seemed to glow, the father was dwarflike, with skin like leather that was dark like a blacksmith's skin. It was difficult to imagine that there was any physical relationship between these two people. Levi Yitzchak was so bewildered that he turned to Reb Yitzchak’el's father and asked him point blank to explain the ‘discrepancy’ in the physical appearance between father and son. The father turned to Levi Yitzchak and said, "Let me tell you the following story which will shed light on the inconsistency in our appearances:
“The story goes back ten generations to the time of my distinguished ancestor Rabbi Mordechai Yoffe ZT”L (1530-1612), the author of the “Levushim”, an epithet given to him because of his ten brilliant, scholarly works, each entitled Levush, i.e. Levush Techeiles, Levush Malchus, etc. As his family name was Yoffe, which was derived from the Hebrew word ‘yafeh’, beautiful, so was Rav Mordechai a man of captivating physical appearance. His visage was something to behold. It is likely that his last name was directly associated with his appearance.
"However, Rav Mordechai's good looks almost became the source of his downfall. Similar to what occurred to the biblical Joseph, Rav Mordechai was confronted with an overwhelming challenge. One day as he was taking a stroll on the outskirts of town, a beautiful gentile woman who was enchanted with his appearance did everything possible to seduce him to sin with her. When Rav Mordechai realized what was occurring, he was determined to ward off her blandishments - even at the expense of his own life.
"Nearby was a canal filled with sewage. He immediately jumped into the foul-smelling water. The stench on his clothes was so overpowering that the woman was repulsed by it and left Rav Mordechai alone. The sewage seeped through all of Rav Mordechai's ten garments that he was wearing at the time. Indeed, the garments that clothed him were filthy and foul-smelling, but his neshamah (soul) and moral character remained as pure as before.
"Our family has a tradition that in the merit of our holy ancestor’s self-sacrifice to overcome this great temptation, G-d gave him the ability to author ten volumes of halachic discourse which he named “Levushim”, (garments), corresponding to the ten garments that had become soiled. The ten garments which saved him would yield ten Halachic works that would inspire generations of Torah students.
“And after having gone through such a difficult challenge that arose due to his striking appearance, Rav Mordechai turned his eyes Heavenward and in emotional prayer beseeched G-d, ‘The next ten generations that will descend from me should be repulsive in appearance, so that they should not encounter the challenges associated with physical beauty’.
"The ten generations, ten generations of descendants whose physical appearance was far from appealing," continued Reb Yitzchak’el's father, "ended with my son. He is the eleventh generation, so with him the beauty begins anew. The external beauty and inner spiritual beauty of my sainted ancestor Rabbi Mordechai Yoffe, author of the Levushim, has returned to my son."
[Sources: Shema Yisrael Torah Network: Peninim on the Parsha: Parshas Vayeishev http://www.shemayisrael.com/parsha/peninim/archives/vayeshev61.htm ]