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Parshas Vayeishev (5770)

Tiger in a Cage

(Friday Night: First light of the Menorah - before 5:05 PM)

In this week’s thrilling Torah portion we find our forefather Jacob’s son Joseph being sold by his own brothers into slavery in Egypt. He was purchased from the Ishmaelites by a prominent Egyptian named Potiphar, and was so successful in his work and so charming in his personality that his master was taken with him and appointed him over his entire household (see Genesis Chapter 39).

Now this Potiphar had a very beautiful wife who lusted after Joseph, as he was an incredibly handsome young man. She tried to seduce Joseph but he adamantly refused, saying to her: “There is no one greater in this house than I, and he [Potiphar] has denied me nothing but you, since you are his wife; how then can I perpetrate this great evil and have sinned against G-d!” (ibid. verse 9).

Unfortunately, this didn’t stop Potiphar’s wife, as she relentlessly pursued Joseph day in day out in the hopes of getting him to sleep with her – but he wouldn’t hear of it. Until one day when she managed to corner him alone in the house and grabbed onto his garment, saying, “Lie with me!” But he left his garment in her hand and fled the house. [The end of the story – for those of you who won’t be attending the Torah Reading in the synagogue this Shabbos to hear it firsthand – is that after failing to seduce Joseph, Potiphar’s wife falsely accused him of trying to seduce her, and he was promptly thrown into jail, there to stay until next week’s Torah portion, when Pharaoh brought him out of jail to interpret his strange dreams.]

Now most people read this section of the Torah without astonishment, because most people don’t stop to think, to realize that the Torah is describing an actual event which took place, with real people. One has to wonder how Joseph was able to control himself and resist that incredible temptation the way he did. I mean, there he was, a great-looking and immensely popular guy, all alone and away from his family, with gorgeous women willing to give themselves to him …. hmmm, sounds a lot like Tiger Woods!

Yet the Biblical Joseph was somehow able to refuse her many advances and stay loyal to his family values and to G-d, while the great Tiger Woods seems to have fallen miserably short in this area, succumbing to temptation many times, thus breaching the marital bond, and disgracing himself in the process.

What was the key to Joseph’s success? And what are the lessons for all of us “mortals” who face all kinds of temptations on a regular basis – some of which can endanger the relationships we hold so dear?

We are all very clear – just like Joseph and even Tiger Woods – that it is morally wrong and sinful to cheat on one’s spouse and betray their trust. That’s a no-brainer. But how we can ensure that we will be able to stick to these values no matter what – even when faced with the seductive enticements of all the “Mrs. Potiphars” that come our way?

I believe that the Torah gives us the simple, yet powerful, answer to this all-important question in one of the verses in the Biblical narrative that we started with. It tells us about Joseph that, as Potiphar’s wife would try to seduce him daily, “…so he would not listen to her to lie beside her, to be with her” (Genesis 39:10). The commentaries explain these words to mean that not only did Joseph refuse to sleep with Potiphar’s wife, he also wouldn’t lie next to her, nor even chat with her in a private room.

You see, Joseph recognized the tremendous power of the human sex drive – there’s a “tiger” inside each and every one of us that can do great damage when let out of its cage and unguarded. He knew that Potiphar’s lustful wife spelled major trouble for him. So he made safeguards for himself to avoid getting into situations with her in which his core values would be tested and he might possibly fail. He made sure never to be alone in a private room with her – even just for a “casual” chat – since he might be tempted to do something he would later regret.

Joseph’s actions were a precursor to the Torah’s later prohibition of Yichud. The prohibition of yichud (lit. seclusion) is the impermissibility of seclusion of a man and a woman in a private area with no one around. Such seclusion is prohibited when the man and woman are not married to each other in order to prevent the two from being tempted or having the opportunity to commit adulterous or promiscuous acts (see the Talmud in Kiddushin 80b and Shulchan Aruch Even HaEzer sections 22 and 24 for extensive sources as well as the parameters of this law.)

Now some of us might think that all this Yichud stuff is just so much paranoia. After all, we would never do what Tiger did (even with only one mistress, let alone ten!). But we would be very naïve in thinking that way. It unfortunately happens all too often when a person finds himself alone in a tempting situation that could have been avoided and things happen that destroy relationships and lives (and children).

The same G-d Who created us with such powerful hormones and drives also gave us the Torah which recognizes the tiger within us and commands us – for our own good – to be vigilant and take active measures to keep that tiger in check. If only Tiger Woods would have done the same ...

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