Lessons from Yosef Hatzaddik to Modern Man
“And Pharaoh said to Yosef, ‘after G-d let you know all of these things, there is none so understanding and wise as you’.” (Bereishis 41:39)
Over the past few months people have witnessed how the high and mighty have been taken down to the lowest depths due to foolish, improper behavior. Incredibly, during this same period, the passages we read in the Torah teach us that wisely adhering to G-d’s moral dictates can raise one up from the lowest pit to the pinnacle of society. The timing of this lesson cannot be coincidental and is truly breathtaking!
Many of our fellow Jews consider themselves highly intelligent and say they reject a life of Torah and Mitzvos due to the troubling questions they have about Emunah and faith. But when we engage with them to answer their questions, it becomes painfully clear that no logic or reason will ever make them change their minds.
This reminds me of the story of the apostate who rationalized to a great Rabbi that he ate non-kosher food due to his many questions of faith. The Rabbi sharply retorted, “if you had questions first and began to eat treife later I could have answered all your questions. But since you ate treife first and then found your ‘questions’; they are not questions at all, but excuses and answers; and to an answer it is not possible to give an answer!”
Particularly, in the area of sins of forbidden relations, which people strongly desire, it is common to find denial of G-d as a pretext to their violation. Indeed, our wise Chazal taught that in ancient times the Jewish people knew that idolatry was totally false and meaningless. Nevertheless, they participated in idol worship to make it socially acceptable to commit adultery openly (Sanhedrin 63b).
Sound advice on conquering this desire is to consider that when one feels the fire of the Yetzer Hara burning within him to quickly perform the sin, realize that immediately afterward the pangs of regret will be overwhelming and enduring. Chazal say “Jewish sinners are filled with regrets,” because while the pleasure of the sin is fleeting, the sense of guilt that follows is exceedingly painful and lasting.
In this vein, the Holy Ruzhiner Rebbe zy”a interpreted the verse in Tehillim (37:10) “In a little while, the wicked is no more; reflect upon his place, and he is gone.” This means that “in a little while”, shortly after sinning, “the wicked is no more,” the person no longer wants to be wicked for he regrets his sin. Therefore, it is better that “he meditate about his place,” he should think before he commits the sin, at the place of the sin, and then “he is gone,” for he will not commit the sin at all.
We must all recognize that the distinguishing characteristic of the human is the ability for his mind to control his heart. Rebbe Tzvi Hirsch of Ziditchov zy”a, explained the passage in the morning prayers, “the preeminence of the human over the animal is nothing,” to mean that the preeminence of the human over the animal is “nothing” or “no.” Only Man has the power to say “no”. When food is placed before an animal, it cannot deny its desire and decide not to eat. Only a human being, endowed with intellect and free will can say “no.”
A prime exemplar of this attribute was Yosef HaTzaddik who excelled in his ability to control his desires and overcome great temptation.
Yosef HaTzaddik was 17 years old, an age of vigor and passion. The beloved ben zekunim, doted upon by his father, he was suddenly ripped away from family and friends, deprived of all of rights, and sold as a slave to Egypt. There, the wife of his master Potiphar tried to seduce him to sin with her. She offered him 1,000 silver talents, the equivalent of a million dollars today, which would have enabled him to go free, get married and live life as a millionaire. He could have even performed many mitzvos with that money.
Nevertheless, Yosef did not deviate from Hashem’s will. He deflected Potiphar’s wife, “how can I perform this great evil, and sin to G-d?” Hashem wants me to do His mitzvos and if He so desires, He will give me the money in a permissible way. On the other hand, if I accept this money through sin, in the end, nothing will remain of it!
Spurning her advances, Yosef ended up in prison. There, everyone mocked him, “where is your G-d now who allowed you to go to prison with nobody to help you to get out?! You will never leave the prison!” Still, Yosef did not allow his spirit to be broken. He strengthened himself in the knowledge that Hashem has many ways to get him out of prison, if He wants.
When the imprisoned royal butler saw Yosef forego millions of dollars and his freedom so as not to sin, he thought Yosef was truly insane. He could not imagine a human being overcoming such temptation. That is why the royal butler referred to Yosef as a “naar” before Pharaoh, meaning a foolish lad.
But, Yosef arrived before Pharaoh’s royal court and spoke in the name of G-d with great faith. He remained unimpressed by the royal court and immediately interpreted Pharaoh’s dream. He even continued giving Godly advice on how to rescue the country from the coming famine. Pharaoh then realized that Yosef was no fool.
He had to admit that Yosef’s overcoming temptation with the wife of Potiphar was not an act of folly, but the exercise of supreme wisdom. As Chazal say, “who is truly wise, he who sees what the future bears.” (Avos 2:9). Thus, Pharaoh exclaimed, “there is none so understanding and wise as you!”
Astoundingly, Yosef became Viceroy of Egypt. In addition to saving his immediate family, it followed that during hundreds of years of bitter enslavement, millions of Bnei Yisrael were able to withstand the allure of assimilation. They had seen concretely that when one keeps Torah and Mitzvot against all odds, Hashem rewards this commitment with wealth and honor in this world and eternal spiritual rewards in the world to come.
May we all learn to follow Yosef’s example, sparing ourselves guilt and grief and reaping a life of blessing and joy.