Modesty challenges in a permissive world
The Parasha in the daily life – Parashat Miketz-Chanukah - Rabbi Eliezer Shenvald - 5780
In our Parasha, we are exposed to Joseph's great "ordeal" with Potiphar's wife. Young Joseph grew up inside Yaacov's home; a home full of faith and spiritual atmosphere with high standards of modesty in the relationship between the sexes. And now he finds himself in Egypt at Potiphar's in a strangely different cultural reality with other standards of gender relations:
וַיְהִ֣י יוֹסֵ֔ף יְפֵה־תֹ֖אַר וִיפֵ֥ה מַרְאֶֽה׃ וַיְהִ֗י אַחַר֙ הַדְּבָרִ֣ים הָאֵ֔לֶּה וַתִּשָּׂ֧א אֵֽשֶׁת־אֲדֹנָ֛יו אֶת־עֵינֶ֖יהָ אֶל־יוֹסֵ֑ף וַתֹּ֖אמֶר שִׁכְבָ֥ה עִמִּֽי׃ וַיְמָאֵ֓ן...וַיְהִ֕י כְּדַבְּרָ֥הּ אֶל־יוֹסֵ֖ף י֣וֹם ׀ י֑וֹם וְלֹא־שָׁמַ֥ע אֵלֶ֛יהָ לִשְׁכַּ֥ב אֶצְלָ֖הּ לִהְי֥וֹת עִמָּֽהּ׃
"Now Joseph was well built and handsome. After a time, his master’s wife cast her eyes upon Joseph and said, “Lie with me.” But he refused.... And much as she coaxed Joseph day after day, he did not yield to her request to lie beside her, to be with her". (Bereshit 39:6-10)
Potiphar's wife followed her heart and instincts and courted him and seduced him in various, direct and indirect ways: "
אמרו עליו על יוסף הצדיק בכל יום ויום היתה אשת פוטיפר משדלתו בדברים בגדים שלבשה לו שחרית לא לבשה לו ערבית בגדים שלבשה לו ערבית לא לבשה לו שחרית אמרה לו השמע לי אמר לה לאו ... נתנה לו אלף ככרי כסף לשמוע אליה לשכב אצלה להיות עמה ולא רצה לשמוע אליה
"They said about Joseph the righteous: Each and every day, the wife of Potiphar seduced him with words. In addition, the clothes that she wore to entice him in the morning, she did not wear to entice him in the evening. The clothes that she wore to entice him in the evening, she did not wear to entice him in the morning of the next day.
One day she said to him: Submit to me and have relations with me. He said to her: No... She gave him a thousand talents of silver to submit to her, “to lie with her and be with her” and he refused". (Yoma 35b)
It was a daily experience that lasted for about a year:
"During the 12 months that Joseph was in Potiphar’s house, he was exposed to those tactics by Potiphar’s wife on a daily basis. When the Torah speaks of these ongoing attempts at seduction (pasuk 10) as occurring יום יום, “every day,” this must be considered as if Joseph had withstood a year’s temptation. The word is used as meaning “year” (as in Esther 3:7). He would literally have to take evasive action, such as covering his face, practically shrinking to the ground. She would use instruments in order to force him to resume his normal posture. She would use the argument that she was not really married to Potiphar; he was a homosexual and had never consummated the “marriage.” He had to explain to her that the Hebrews were not allowed to have sexual relations with Egyptian women even if the latter were unmarried. She would threaten him with having him consigned to jail. Joseph would reply that his G–d had means of freeing him from jail. She would threaten to have him blinded, to which he replied that his G–d could make the blind see. Eventually, if it had not been for the priests who testified hat the drops of semen she produced as evidence that he had tried to rape her were in fact not from a human being, he might have been sentenced to death. This eventually became the reason why he dealt so extraordinarily generously with the Egyptian priests during the years of the famine. (Daat Zkenim on Bereshit 39:12).
Then one day opportunity knocked on the door:
וַיְהִי֙ כְּהַיּ֣וֹם הַזֶּ֔ה וַיָּבֹ֥א הַבַּ֖יְתָה לַעֲשׂ֣וֹת מְלַאכְתּ֑וֹ וְאֵ֨ין אִ֜ישׁ מֵאַנְשֵׁ֥י הַבַּ֛יִת שָׁ֖ם בַּבָּֽיִת׃ וַתִּתְפְּשֵׂ֧הוּ בְּבִגְד֛וֹ לֵאמֹ֖ר שִׁכְבָ֣ה עִמִּ֑י וַיַּעֲזֹ֤ב בִּגְדוֹ֙ בְּיָדָ֔הּ וַיָּ֖נָס וַיֵּצֵ֥א הַחֽוּצָה׃
"One such day, he came into the house to do his work. None of the household being there inside, she caught hold of him by his garment and said, “Lie with me!” But he left his garment in her hand and got away and fled outside". (Bereshit 39:11-12)
At such a difficult and challenging moment, the ordeal comes to its peak. Joseph saves himself from failing at the last moment:
ותתפשהו בבגדו לאמר וגו' באותה שעה באתה דיוקנו של אביו ונראתה לו בחלון...
"The verse states: “And she caught him by his garment, saying: Lie with me”. At that moment his father’s image [deyokeno] came and appeared to him in the window". (Sotah 36b).
He needed tremendous spiritual strength, taken from his father's house to withstand the difficult experience. Thanks to his steadfast adherence, Joseph was named (very rare in Tanach) "Joseph the Righteous" – עַל־מִכְרָ֤ם בַּכֶּ֙סֶף֙ צַדִּ֔יק
"Because they have sold for silver Those whose cause was just," (Amos 2:6), and marked in the people of Israel the ability to cope with temptations for generations.
This Sabbath falls on Chanukah. According to the Midrash, the circumstances leading to the Hasmonean uprising are also related to maintaining the standards of modesty and gender relations:
כיון שראו יוונים שאין ישראל מרגישין בגזירותיהם עמדו וגזרו עליהם גזירה מרה ועכורה, שלא תכנס כלה בלילה הראשון מחופתה אלא אצל ההגמון שבמקום ההוא...והיו יוונים מתעללות בבתולות ישראל וכו,
"Because the Greeks saw that Israel did not follow in their decrees, they sent them a bitter and dirty decree that a bride on the first night of her wedding would not go home with her new husband but with the bishop of that place. And the Greeks abused the virgins of Israel, etc". (Midrash the Tale of Chanukah).
The Greeks realized that the value of modesty is the "soul bird" of Judaism. It is not just a personal matter, it is one of the foundations of Jewish culture and society, and its special strength. And so, they wanted to harm it. This cruel and horrible fate was exaggerated. Matityahu's (the Hasmonean priest) daughter, was unwilling to accept the decree and give up her modesty. In her special way, she made the Hasmonean family realize that there was no choice and they had to endure the miracle of rebellion and go to war. Which eventually led to the miracle of Chanukah.
"The victory that Hashem gave in the hands of the Cohanim, who overcame the Greeks, who sought not only to uproot the people of Israel from their material status, but to uproot the quality of life that Israel proclaims in the world, that they should be according to the Torah, where the purity and modesty are the main purpose of family life, followed by the other Israeli values and opinions. The Greeks hated this and considered it to be the enemy to their culture, to them that brought to the world the joys of life and its physical and imaginative pleasures. Therefore, the hatred of the Greeks was directed to Torat Israel" (Rabbi Kook, Ein Ayah Shabbat, p. 61).
This year, we are dealing with Torah in the daily life. The permissive postmodern era in which we live disputes the moral and religious world. Postmodernism challenged the validity of values. It blurred the boundaries between the forbidden and the permissible and legitimized to go after one's heart desire even at the cost of breaking value constraints and changing habits. Permissibility undermined the rules of modesty in dress and behavior and broke the barriers between the sexes.
The integration and partnership of the religious person in the social and economic arena exposes him to a different world and challenges his values of modesty and holiness. He may find himself confronted with temptations that he has not experienced, and he must adhere to his ways and resist the test.