Shabbat VaYeshev: Choices and Exile

In this week’s parashah we follow Joseph down to Egypt. This is a time of terror for him: his brothers sell him as a slave and he is taken far away from home. He is bought by a minister to Pharaoh and seems to be doing well; he gains his master’s trust and is put in charge of the household. The future is beginning to look brighter; maybe he will be able to become free, or at least become a higher rank of slave….

Then, one day, his master’s wife tries to seduce him. The story goes that Joseph was a very good looking young man, and like many young men is, well, not uninterested in sexual advances. Joseph knows it is wrong to sleep with his master’s wife, but, according to the midrash, he is, naturally, tempted.

How does he manage to refuse? According to a fascinating teaching by Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger,

….there are two sorts of trials. One sort can be overcome by a person’s own efforts. The other trial is the greater one, in which sheer strength cannot be victorious at all. In a case like this, the pure desire and the honest and just heart of the righteous person allow choice to be removed all together, thus avoiding the trial. This is considered divine intervention.

This is what Joseph is really saying where in the Torah it is written, He refused, saying to his master’s wife: My lord knows nothing of that which I do in the house; all that is his he has placed in my hands (Gen. 39.8). G-d gives us choices in all we desire to do, asking only one thing of us: that we remember the yoke of G-d’s kingdom, recalling that all comes to us from G-d. This much we surely have to keep in mind.

Now understand this meaning within the words of Joseph: “…he [He] has kept nothing from me, except for you insofar as you are his wife.”

In this way Joseph was able to avoid having to choose; he remembered that choice itself is given by G-d. In this way, even though he could not overcome the temptation by his own strength, the pain he felt over this helped him to access G-d’s help in overcoming this trial.

This was our first preparation for exile, since Egypt contained within it all of our exiles. The essence of exile is that it makes for additional choice. If there were no need to choose, humanity would be truly free. When we are able to avoid choosing we will come to complete redemption.  

(from Sefat Emet: The Language of Truth, ed. Arthur Green, p. 56-57)

Choosing, for the Sefat Emet, is a trial of exile – and exile is wandering, lost among competing claims for meaning, without an orienting compass to help distinguish between them, distant from a sense of certainty and a clear path. On this Shabbat, consider this insight into the halakha, the path of Jewish going. Its guidance may seem constricting, but within the certainties one is liberated from a basic level of choice. Consider the discipline of exercise; if you don’t have to waste time deciding if you’re going to, you’re already ahead. Similarly, What might you do with that extra energy if you weren’t using it deciding whether or not to do mitzvot?

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