Rabbi Baruch Winetraub
Former Sgan Rosh Beit Midrash, Toronto (2011-2014)
Currently Rabbi of Tel Mond
Drawing the Line
Our parshah is the epoch to an epic which will take us from Hevron to Shechem, from Shechem to Egypt, only to be concluded in Goshen, where our Chumash ends. Many lessons can be learned throughout this journey, and the ways to interpret and draw meaning out of it seems to multiply every time it is read.
In this article, I would like to reflect upon one of the morals that emerge from this narrative. Searching for the turning point in Yosef’s fate after being sold, one can definitely point to next week’s parshah and his encounter with Pharaoh. Looking deeper, though, one can rather see his successful solution of the servants dream, in the end of our Parshah, as the decisive moment which began Yosef’s salvation. An even closer analysis, I believe, would lead us to identify the crossroads earlier in the story, in Yosef’s struggle with Potifar’s wife.
The argument to single this event out as the changing point in the story is that it in it, for the first time in the story, we hear someone who is drawing a line in the sand, refusing to do what seems so natural and inevitable.
Many commentators, over the years, worked hard to explain, sometimes even to justify, the brothers’ decision to throw Yosef into a pit and eventually to sell him to slavery. Be the explanation whatever it is, Reuven was not persuaded. The Torah explicitly tells us, that Reuven, as the oldest and the responsible brother, wanted to save Yosef and bring him back to his father. Alas, Reuven failed to openly and directly oppose his siblings. Instead, he convinced them to throw Yoesf to a pit, hoping that he will later be able to come by himself and pull him out.
In the next chapter we are told about Yehudah and his dealings with Tamar. While a full study of the event is much beyond our scope here, one can easily see that here, again, red lines were breached. Yehudah knew, as he will later admit, that not letting Tamar marry his young son, Shiloh, was a mistake. Moreover, from his warning to his friend Hirah to stop looking for the woman he met on the crossroad ‘lest we will be mocked’ one can infer that he saw this act as wrong too. Here, again, red lined were crossed.
However, the brothers were not the only one to fail their own expectations and beliefs; Yoesf, it seems, was accused by his father for the same thing. After telling Yaacov his dream about the sun, the moon and the stars coming and bowing down to him, Yosef was rebuked by his father – can it be that you wish for your parents, symbolized by the sun and the moon, to bow down to you? Isn’t that a breach of the fundamental hierarchy between child and parents?
And so, as all the actors were unable to stop, all boundaries and limits were transgressed, shattering sacred relationships between brothers, father and children, man and wife. The turning point in this tide was Yosef’s brave and courageous stand against his master’s wife. Resisting the temptation of physical pleasure and promised liberation, Yosef stood fast to this one red line; how can I be, he asked his mistress, unfaithful to my master, and even more importantly, to my G-d? Chazal saw this refusal of Yosef to surrender not only a victory of the spirit against desires, but also a reaffirmation by Yosef that he is still committed to the values taught by Yaacov. His father’s face, we are being told, were seen by Yosef looking at him through the window.
By his insistence to remain true to his principles, Yosef was able to give meaning to the lot that befell to him. He knew now that he is a Hebrew man, following in the footsteps of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaacov. He willingness to sacrifice and to pay any price needed, had won him a distinct and strong identity as a servant of G-d. Armed with this self-assurance, Yosef will be able to stand in front of Pharaoh and tell him what are G-d’s plans.
The message to be learned, thus, is of the great importance of red lines in our life. Their role is not limited to just restricting us from doing what is prohibited; rather, by their existence, they better defined who we are, and to what do we aspire.