Parashat Vayeshev

Sermon Glasgow Reform Synagogue

Passion and Restraint

Like every good story, B’reishit is assembling the stage for a final drama: the settling of the B’nei Yisrael in Egypt. When the book of Shemot opens, we all know what happens next. ‘A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph’ (Gen. 1:8) and soon the Israelites are enslaved and embittered by hard labour.
The Joseph Story is a bridge, where adventures of individuals become the fate of nations. Joseph forms the fulcrum between B’reishit and Shemot.

But there is more to Joseph than that. He, like his father Jacob, is a passionate and proud man. But unlike his ancestors, Joseph knows restraint.

Restraint, especially when pertaining to matters of intimacy, is a recurring theme in this part of the Torah. The examples of this are many. Jacob is forced to work another seven years for his beloved Rachel. Reuben fails to restrain himself when he sleeps with Bilhah, his father’s concubine (Gen. 35:22). Chamor, the son of Shechem fails to practice sexual morality when he rapes Jacob’s daughter Dinah. Judah falls for the wiles of a prostitute who is actually his widowed daughter-in-law claiming her rightful heritage: a child in the name of her deceased husband (Gen. 38).

I am not even listing the many plural marriages of our patriarchs. The Torah’s men are driven on by an internal fire which is their rise and downfall. Is this a concession to human nature then, that the movers and shakers in the world are often unruly in matters of the heart? Certainly, when we look at politicians, pop stars and celebrities, this seems very much the case.

Yet Joseph manages to practice restraint.

Joseph’s restraint in a way seems unexpected. Joseph is a proud young boy, handsome and arrogant. A dreamer, he conjures up visions of grandeur, soliciting the contempt and hatred of his hot-headed brothers. Joseph seems doomed to make all the mistakes of his impulsive and manipulative father Jacob. Will he rashly execute his vision of grandeur? Or will he bind himself with the silver cords of conscience?
We know what happens next. His brothers throw him in a pit, almost killing him, and selling him into slavery. The terse narrative of the Torah says nothing about how Joseph reacted. Did he fight them off? Did he try to run away? Did he wail with fear and misery, pounding his fists against the muddy walls of the pit? Maybe already then, Joseph was turning from a dreamer into a visionary and willed himself to silence.

Joseph finds himself in Egypt, at Pharaoh’s court. He is bought by a courtier named Potiphar who ‘took a liking to Joseph’ (Gen. 39:4). The young entrepreneur becomes successful. And as often happens with good-looking and successful men, he draws the eye of the mistress of the house.

I imagine a tantalising scene. Joseph is young and aware of his appeal. He is a golden boy, seventeen years old, full of fire and passion. Potiphar’s wife must have been an aristocratic beauty, dressed in crisp and sheer white linen, her proud head, slender neck and long limbs adorned with gold and lapis lazuli, her eyes encircled with dark kohl. How enticing it would be for a young man, heady with power and privilege and passion, to succumb to her forward advances. ‘Lie with me’, she demands, her voice laced with honey and edged with venom.

He refuses.

We can only imagine the moral fortitude this must have taken. Of course, falling for Potiphar’s wife would have been extremely dangerous. Yet history is littered with examples of death-defying risks taken in the name of love or lust. It is not the risk of punishment or death that stops Joseph. ‘V’eich e’eseh hara’ah hagedolah hazot v’chatati l’Elohim?’ – ‘And how shall I do this great evil and sin before God?’ (Gen. 39:9). Even when Potiphar’s wife pursues him and corners him, he does not relent. She grabs his garment (it seems ironic and telling that Joseph’s clothes figure so prominently in the narrative) but he flees. Scorned, she turns the tables on him and accuses him of rape. When Potiphar’s listens to his wife’s account, he is furious and throws Joseph in jail. Even there, Joseph wills himself silent. Why does he not advocate on his own behalf? Instead, he sits in his dirty and cramped cell and ponders his future.

The young Joseph grows into a discipline and intelligent planner. He keeps his head cool. The foundational stone of the structure of Joseph’s life is his ability to dream and envision. His dreams are not merely passionate or indulgent fantasies but strategic and focused projections of what could be. He is a visionary.
It is Joseph’s visions that allow him to break the chain of familial discord. It is not that he has no emotions; rather he controls them, even when his alienated brothers come down to Egypt to seek his help. Joseph is deliberate; in how he faces the challenge of feeding Egypt during the famine and in how he heals the rifts in his own household. We might not like Joseph, this cocky and precocious child, but we can admire him for the level-headedness with which he shapes his destiny.

Finally, he is rewarded. He too begets two sons, Menasheh and Ephraim. And the Joseph story, like any classic, ends happily with a long life lived out in peace, prosperity and love. Joseph’s largest success and greatest legacy lies not in his wealth but in the heritage his restraint and vision bequeathed upon us. It is not for naught that we bless our sons on Shabbat that they may become like Menasheh and Ephraim. After all, they were the first sibling pair who lived in harmony with each other.

It is Joseph’s moral passion coupled with intelligent vision, bound by the cords of restraint that redeems him. Toxic patterns of anger and abuse, of impulse and danger can be broken. Although the Joseph story eventually leads into the physical slavery of our people, its message is ultimately hopeful. No matter how roped in we may be, we need not be slaves of our passions but can be free to serve God with a pure conscience and clear vision instead.

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