Parashat Vayesheb: Spiritual Survival in Modern Society
We read in Parashat Vayesheb of Yosef’s experiences after being sold as a slave to an Egyptian nobleman named Potifar. Potifar’s wife desired an intimate relationship with Yosef, who was seventeen years old and physically attractive. She tried everything she could to entice Yosef, but he resisted temptation. Day in and day out, Potifar’s wife made advances in an attempt to seduce Yosef, until ultimately one day, when they were alone the house, she grabbed his garment, and he fled from the house. Potifar’s wife then proceeded to charge that Yosef assaulted her, and he was imprisoned.
King Shelomo teaches us in the Book of Mishleh (20:7), "Mit’halech Be’tumo Sadik, Ashreh Banav Aharav" – "A righteous man walks innocently; fortunate are his children after him." This means that the good deeds of a righteous person have a profound influence on his offspring, even generations later. Yosef’s heroic resistance to Potifar’s wife had a powerful impact upon Beneh Yisrael, and is what enabled them to spent over 200 years in Egypt without assimilating, without intermarrying, and without participating in the decadent culture of ancient Egypt. This was made possible by the precedent of Yosef’s refusal to succumb to temptation, to keep a distance from an Egyptian woman even when she tried everything she could to approach him.
This is why later, in Parashat Vayehi (50:20), Yosef explains to his brothers that although they had sold him as a slave to cause him harm, G-d planned this event in order "Le’hahayot Am Rab" – "to sustain a large nation." Yosef understood that he was sent to Egypt ahead of Beneh Yisrael in order to lay the foundations of separation, to set the example of withstanding the enormous pressure to assimilate into the Egyptians’ culture of promiscuity and permissiveness. This was necessary "to sustain a large nation" – to ensure Beneh Yisrael’s spiritual survival in Egypt’s decadent society.
This explains the significance of shoes in the story of Yosef. Targum Yonatan Ben Uziel tells that after Yosef’s brothers sold him as a slave, they used the money they received to purchase shoes. And thus the Rabbis chose as the Haftara – the portion of the Prophets – read on Shabbat Parashat Vayesheb the prophecy from the Book of Amos, in which the prophet condemns the people for selling a righteous man "Ba’abur Na’alayim" – "for shoes" (Amos 2:6) – alluding to the brothers’ salve of Yosef as a slave. Why are the shoes purchased with the money considered so significant that it is emphasized by the prophet, and that this prophecy is chosen as the Haftara for this Parasha?
Shoes represent separation between the person and the ground upon which he treads. G-d saw to it that Yosef’s sale as a slave to Egypt would be immediately followed by the purchase of shoes – to set into motion to the process of separation which Yosef would lead. Shoes are thus truly the essence of this story – because they represent the core reason why Yosef was sold as a slave to Egypt: to establish the separation between Am Yisrael and the "ground" of Egypt, the sinful, decadent culture in which they would live for two centuries.
Indeed, the Kabbalists teach that Yosef had the soul of Hanoch, Noah’s great-grandfather, a righteous figure who lived during the period before the flood. The Midrash says that Hanoch was a cobbler, who made shoes. This means that Hanoch mastered the art of separation, of setting himself apart from the sinfulness of the surrounding culture and society. His sacred soul then returned in the form of Yosef, who paved the way for Beneh Yisrael to remain separate and apart from the decadent culture in Egypt.
Living in modern-day America poses enormous and unprecedented spiritual challenges – challenges that are far more difficult than those faced by our ancestors in Egypt, or at any other time. Not only has contemporary society embraced unrestrained permissiveness as a value and ideal, but this culture is literally accessible at our fingertips at all times throughout the day. The Jewish community has, thank G-d, succeeded magnificently in building wonderful institutions of prayer and learning, a great infrastructure of Torah life – but we still face a grave threat to our Kedusha, to the special holiness that the Torah demands of us. Under such conditions, we must look to Yosef as our source of inspiration and guidance. Just as he withstood the unimaginably difficult test to which he was subjected, so are we capable of withstanding the difficult spiritual challenges that are unique to our generation. Yosef set an example and precedent not only for the generations of Jews who suffered exile in Egypt – but also for our generation enduring the difficult tests posed by contemporary society. Let us harness the great power of Yosef and muster the strength and self-restraint we need to withstand today’s challenges and to live the pure, sacred lives that Hashem’s special nation is meant to live.