From Where I Stand
By Rabbi Yossy Goldman
How much do our parents and grandparents influence us? Of course, the genes we inherit from them determine lots of important things about us—from our cholesterol levels to when we will go gray. But what about emotionally or spiritually?
I’d like to suggest that they influence us more than we might care to admit. We also tend to underestimate the potential they have in molding the value systems of the next generation.
A powerful case in point is the story in this week’s parashah. Joseph is sold into slavery down in Egypt and winds up in the house of Potiphar. His master’s wife casts her lustful gaze on the handsome young man and repeatedly attempts to seduce him. Joseph is consistent in his refusal to even consider her advances. Then one day, the entire household goes to the temple for a special occasion. She feigns illness in order to be home alone with Joseph. He comes to the house “to do his work.” Rashi offers two interpretations: the simple—that he came to work; and another, that he actually came to do his work with her!
Determined as he always was, on this occasion Joseph was beginning to falter. Morale and morality were weakening, and it seemed as if he was about to succumb to the temptress’s entreaties.
Then suddenly something happened to help Joseph regain his senses and self-control. What was it? Did they come home early? Did the postman ring the bell? Says Rashi, there appeared before Joseph an image, an image so potent that it restored his composure there and then. What was that image? Quoting the Talmud (in Sotah), Rashi says it was the image of the visage of his father. Joseph suddenly pictured his father Jacob’s face, and with that his moral resolve returned.
Was it a miracle, a heavenly message from the Holy Land? According to the simple reading, at that stage Jacob didn’t even know that Joseph was alive. He had been missing and presumed dead, devoured by a wild animal. The straightforward understanding of this Talmudic passage is that Joseph remembered his father and his patriarchal face, the classical sage with the long white beard. And with that image in his mind, Joseph found renewed spiritual stamina to resist temptation.
Some might understand this episode as Joseph not wanting to disappoint his aged father. Others might see the image as a catalyst evoking in Joseph his own latent spiritual resources. Either way, with Jacob’s visage in his mind, Joseph wasn’t prepared to lose the moral high ground. He couldn’t and wouldn’t do it to his dad. And, through his father, Joseph remembered who he was—a proud son of Jacob and grandson of Isaac and Abraham.
Such was the effect Jacob had on Joseph, and such is the effect every father and mother, grandfather and grandfather, can potentially bring to bear on their offspring. Of course, they would have to be respected by their children as men and women of stature for their image to represent any kind of moral symbolism. If the image of a parent or grandparent would send a signal to the young person to, say, “Go for it, my boy!” then clearly the system will fail.
I can safely say that if not for the image of my own father and grandfather and their subtle influence on me, I would never have become a rabbi. They didn’t push me at all, but their influence was profound. Just their image—their character and very being—was enough to guide me in the right direction during my own wavering moments of youthful indecision.
Joseph was nearly lost way down in Egypt-land, but that one image of his father saved him from sin and helped him go on to achieve greatness. May we all be good role models and may our own images help inspire our children and grandchildren.
Rabbi Yossy Goldman was born in Brooklyn and was sent in 1976 by the Lubavitcher Rebbe as an emissary to serve the Jewish community of Johannesburg, South Africa. He is Senior Rabbi of the Sydenham Shul and president of the South African Rabbinical Association. His sefer “From Where I Stand: Life Messages from the Weekly Torah Reading” was published by Ktav and is available at Jewish book shops or online at www.ktav.com.