December 10, 1998
The Image of an Honorable Man
Parashat Va-Yeshev (Genesis 37:1-40:23)
Every summer, my sisters and I, along with our husbands and children, spend a few days with our parents at Red's Meadow resort near Mammoth. The cabins are rustic; the air is bracing; the pace is deliciously unhurried. By now, our visits are a cluster of beloved rituals. One day we go fishing; one day we take the short trail to Rainbow Falls; and on the third day, when we're used to the altitude, we go hiking with my father up the mountain to Shadow Lake.
The rest of us keep up a constant stream of commentary while we're walking, but my father never says much. He is close to 70 this year, but, as far as I can tell, he has no trouble making the climb. He does it the way he does everything -- quietly, dependably, never flashy, but strong and steady on his feet. I like to watch him taking the trail like a mountain man, or standing contented at the summit when we've reached the shore of the lake. That's how I picture him all through the year, while I'm in my office and he's in his -- still working, with no thought of retiring yet. My father doesn't know the meaning of quit.
This week, the Torah brings us the story of Joseph, a vain, spoiled boy at odds with his brothers. Joseph is a dreamer; he's full of self-importance; he's a snoop, a tattletale, a troublemaker -- no wonder Jacob's other sons find him insufferable. Because he dreams of power, because his dreams nakedly reveal his yearning to rule over his brothers, our Sages tell us that Joseph deserves the comeuppance he gets: cast into a pit, sold into slavery, carried down to Egypt, where he'll spend the rest of his life.
But Joseph is, above all, a work in progress. At one pivotal moment in our portion, the spoiled boy emerges as a man of substance. Handsome young Joseph is pursued by the wife of Potiphar, his Egyptian employer. She is frank and importunate in her sexual demands: "Lie with me," she commands. Joseph puts her off, but she persists. Finally, she catches him alone in the house, seizes him bodily and insists that he take her to bed. And Joseph, unaccountably, becomes a hero. Defying his master's wife, resisting the urgent call of his own adolescent hormones, he tears himself away and flees.
How does Joseph find the strength to resist the wiles of Potiphar's wife? He isn't sure, at first, how to handle the situation; the Talmud suggests that he came into the empty house ready to give in to her demands. But at that crucial moment, says the midrash, Joseph saw his father's image before him. He saw Jacob's face, he heard his voice, and, all at once, Joseph knew the right thing to do.
"Esa einai el he-harim," says Psalm 121. "I lift my eyes to the mountains -- from where will my help come?" And a midrash comments: "Our fathers are called 'mountains.'" From where shall our help come? From those who made us, from those who formed us and shaped our minds and hearts, from the parents and grandparents whose lessons we will never forget. They are monumental in our memory; the touch of their hands lives forever; their voices echo as long as we live.
Like Joseph, I think of my father, and of the help that has come from him for so many years -- quiet, steady, dependable, unstinting. He will always be a picture of strength to me, even when he's no longer strong enough to hike the Sierra Nevada. It helps to hold before you the image of an honorable man. Sometimes, when you need him most, he helps you figure out the right thing to do.
Rabbi Janet Ross Marder is director of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, Pacific Southwest Council.