Parashat Vayesheb: The Secret to Yosef’s Spiritual Survival
The Torah in Parashat Vayesheb tells of Yosef’s travails in Egypt, where he was forcibly brought after having been sold as a slave by his brothers. He ended up working for an Egyptian nobleman named Potifar, whose wife desired an intimate relationship with Yosef. She repeatedly tried luring him to sin, but he resisted. Finally, she grabbed his garment, whereupon he immediately ran from the house. Potifar’s wife then falsely charged that Yosef tried to assault her.
Our Sages teach that on that final occasion, Yosef nearly succumbed to temptation, and decided he would commit this grievous sin. At the last moment, however, an image of his father, Yaakob, appeared, pleading with him to desist, and this gave Yosef the strength to avoid committing this misdeed.
How exactly did Yaakob’s image succeed in helping Yosef overcome this great challenge? Why did this vision give him the strength he needed to avoid sinning with Potifar’s wife?
Rav Haim Palachi (Turkey, 1788-1869) explained that the Sages refer here to the great merit of Yosef’s outstanding respect and loyalty to his father. Yaakob had sent Yosef to check on his brothers as they shepherded the family’s sheep in the fields of Shechem. Yosef knew how much his brothers despised him. The Torah tells us that the brothers’ hostility towards Yosef reached the point where they were incapable of speaking peacefully with him. It was thus perfectly clear to Yosef that his brothers resented and hated him. Going to see them out in the pastures as they shepherded their sheep was certainly a risky mission for Yosef to undertake. And yet, Yosef obeyed his father’s wish unconditionally. He paid no heed to the danger entailed, and happily went to fulfill his father’s request.
It was the merit of this obedience, Rav Haim Palachi writes, that protected Yosef in Egypt. He was a vulnerable seventeen-year-old boy who was forcibly driven to a foreign country, a country whose decadent, corrupt culture stood in direct opposition to everything he had learned from his father, to everything his tradition taught him. Normally, there would be no possible way for Yosef to spiritually survive under such conditions. We know how concerned observant parents are in today’s day and age when their children go off to colleges, even colleges with regular Minyanim, Torah classes and kosher food, fearful that their children might fall prey to negative influences. Yosef found himself in a country where he was the only Jew. He certainly had no Minyan, kosher food or organized Torah classes. He was all alone in a culture steeped in values that were antithetical to his own. Remarkably, however, he succeeded in maintaining his loyalty to his family’s values and traditions. What protected him, Rav Haim Palachi writes, was the merit of his Kibud Ab – his respect for his father. It was his absolute, unconditional and unwavering obedience to his father that provided him with the spiritual fortification he needed to resist the harmful influences of Egypt, including the persistent efforts made by Potifar’s wife to lure him to sin.
In our day and age, we need spiritual protection more than ever. Not unlike Yosef, we are submerged in a culture that is hostile and antithetical to our traditions, values, ideals and way of life. And, this culture infiltrates our homes constantly, to the point where we can no longer hide from it. But in addition, our culture is progressively chipping away at the notion of parental authority. Our greatest source of protection from hostile spiritual influences – Kibud Ab, respecting parents – is itself quickly growing "out of style." We need to reinforce our commitment to this vitally important Misva, to the obligation to respect and obey parents. Just as this Misva protected Yosef in Egypt, it is what will protect us, too, from the overwhelming hostile influences to which we are exposed on a constant basis in our society.