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September 24, 2014 / 29 Elul, 5774
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Yosef HaTzaddik’s Image: For Him And For Us


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Yosef Hatzaddik is not only the central character at the end of Chumash Bereishis. I believe that Yosef is also the character who best serves as a role model for many in today’s world.

Yosef is, of course, the paradigm of a leader in a secular world who remains true to his religious identity. Rav Soloveitchik in his Days of Deliverance (page 165-166) and others, stress that the parshiot of Yosef are always read Chanukah time to accent the fact that one can be a profoundly spiritual individual at the same time that one rises to the highest echelons of society. Yosef Hatzaddik is the viceroy of Egypt, yet his worldly authority in no way diminishes his spiritual quest. This is the same ideal that the Chasmoneans represented. They were great warriors, “but the moment they laid down their swords their interests centered around kedusha.”

It is this model of multi-colored, engaged tzidkus, rather than the monochromatic tzaddik who remains isolated from society and does not engage with or seek to improve the world around him, that motivates so many of the young people with whom I am in contact on a regular basis.

Yosef is also an appropriate model as he defines tzaddik in a unique way. Generally we think of a tzaddik as a singularly focused person, an individual without complexities whose being is about spiritual attainments, and overlooks all slights to his personality. Yosef is not that way. He does not offer his brothers simple and unqualified mechila.

Although the brothers clearly beg mechila from Yosef we do not find explicitly in the Torah that Yosef grants it (See Bereishis 50:17). Moreover, we find Yosef toying with and apparently manipulating his brothers. This does not seem like behavior that we would expect from a tzaddik. (See Rabbi Michael Rosensweig’s article in Mitoch ha-Ohel for analysis of these points). Of course, Yosef had profound reasons for his behavior, but the point remains that when reading about Yosef we do not see a simple, uncomplicated tzaddik. The tzidkus of Yosef is much more complex and textured than we would expect. This point should not be lost on the many individuals who strive to attain spiritual heights despite the complexities and apparent contradictions in their personalities. They should not lose sight of the Yosef model of tzidkus.

Yosef is a role model in yet another way. It is widely accepted that Yosef is termed a tzaddik because of the episode when he is able to withstand the advances of Potifar’s wife. The Gemara in Sotah (36:2) famously depicts this event:

At the moment when Yosef was prepared to sin, the image of his father appeared to him in the window. It called out, “Yosef your brothers’ names will eventually be inscribed on the stones of the ephod, do you want your name to be erased from that list?”

The Gemara is telling us that Yosef was able to withstand the enormous pressure because he saw the image of his father. He was able to look beyond the immediate situation and peer through the window where he saw his father’s image and was able garner the necessary strength to resist.

However, this is only part of the story. Many note that the image of Yaakov Avinu is the image that appears on the Kisei HaKavod, Hashem’s glorious throne. This accents the potential mankind can attain and by focusing on this Yosef was able to avoid sin. However I heard from one of my fellow rabeim, Rabbi Zvi Sobolfosky, a more poignant take on this Gemara. Rabbi Sobolofsky noted that Rashi teaches us at the beginning of Parshas Vayeishev (37:2) that Yosef and Yaakov looked very much alike. Accepting Rashi’s comment, we become aware that the image Yosef saw was not just that of his father, but his own image as well. Yosef saw himself;, h he did not focus on generic man and what he can accomplish, but rather on his own image, his own potential and what he himself could attain. At the most intense moment of passion as he was about to sin, Yosef focused on who he truly was, and was thereby able to restrain himself.

I believe that this lesson is very appropriate for our generation. It is well known that we live at a time of abundant, perhaps unprecedented temptation. The emphasis on Yosef HaTzaddik resisting temptation because he saw his own image needs to be underscored.

In my experience I have found that focusing on the gravity of the sin is not an effective deterrent in our day and age. We need to emphasize the form of mussar that stresses the potential each person has, how much he or she can accomplish. It is not even enough to emphasize the potential of people in general; the stress must be on the individual and the great things that he or she can attain. This mussar, the mussar epitomized by Yosef HaTzaddik’s refusal to succumb to temptation, stands the greatest chance of success in our world.

About the Author: Rabbi Ezra Schwartz is rosh yeshiva at YU-affiliated Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary.


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Yosef Hatzaddik is not only the central character at the end of Chumash Bereishis. I believe that Yosef is also the character who best serves as a role model for many in today’s world.

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