Jewish law is filled with guidelines that govern the way men and women may relate to each other outside of marriage. With boundaries and fences derived from the Torah as well as Rabbinic legislation, there are several controls in place that limit physical contact, mode of dress, the allowance of a man and woman to be alone with each other, and other behaviors.
And while all restrictions on people’s personal lives have and will always face cynicism, misinterpretations, accusations and disparaging remarks, is there a thinking individual who would deny the potential pitfalls of close contact between men and women and the fatal attractions that are caused when even the most innocent and moral of individuals get caught up in the heat of their emotions?
The Torah personality who most embodies the potential to withstand such trials is our forefather Yaakov’s son Yosef. He is known in Rabbinic literature as a “Tzadik”, one who can consistently prevail over his impulses. Yet, in this week’s Torah portion we find a near mishap even with this paradigm of holiness.
After being sold into slavery by his brothers and descending to Egypt, Yosef finds unusual success, and becomes the head supervisor in the home of Potifar, one the major politicians of the land. All seems to be going well until Yosef finds himself being stalked by his master’s wife, a situation that clearly wouldn’t look good for him on his next resume. The situation spirals so out of control that Yosef, coming moments away from losing this battle, must evacuate the house, leaving his clothes behind, in a total panic to avoid the advances of this woman and the intense persuasion of his evil inclination.
And, while one would get the impression that we are witnessing the actions of a very immoral woman, ready to commit a blatant act of adultery to satisfy her improper desires, our commentaries allude to the fact that her intentions were somewhat more noble than one might think.
Rashi informs us that Mrs. Potifar had a vision that the children of Yosef were supposed to come through her household (in fact, the woman that Yosef ultimately married was her adopted child). Furthermore, on the verse that states “And Yosef refused to lie with her”, Rashi comments with the following statement, “not in Olam Hazeh (this world) and not in Olam Habah (the World to Come)”, implying that this was more than a physical obsession but a spiritual one as well.
Two hrighteous people, finding themselves moments away from a potential disaster, an act of adultery that would have affected Yosef’s holiness and the future of the Jewish people! If Yosef can fall, what does that say about me and you?
Our sages teach that a person must “sanctify themselves with things that are permitted”. In matters of appropriate behavior, it isn’t enough to stick to the rules, we need to go beyond the letter of the law. We must identify high risk situations and environments that might bring a one to act or speak in ways that are beneath his or her dignity and stay far away!
It is noteworthy that the initial commitment to marriage is referred to in the Torah as Kidushin, which is from the same root as the word Kedushah, holiness. In marriage, one spouse commits to the other not only to be faithful to the other, but to accept on themselves a level of complete holiness towards one another. That means not only avoiding infidelity, but avoiding any breach of that sacred holiness.
May we merit to open our hearts to the love and concern that the Torah and our Sages have had for us, to try to protect us from lowering ourselves and our bar of holiness. May we be humble enough to realize that their guiding light is essential for us to maintain our purity. And may we merit to rise above all challenges and sanctify God’s name in any situation that we find ourselves in.