The Winning Strategy

December 7, 2014

4 min read


Vayeshev (Genesis 37-40 )

The wife of Potiphar coveted Yosef, and she was quite forward in her attempts to achieve her desire. The way that Yosef dealt with this great test of temptation can serve as a model for how to deal with the yeitzer hara, our evil inclination, in general.

"And the wife of his master lifted up her eyes to Yosef and she said 'Lie with me.' And he refused, and he said to the wife of his master 'behold my master does not know anything with me in the house (i.e. he places his full trust in me) and all that is his he has put into my hand. There is no one greater in this household than me (i.e. he has given me the highest authority) and he has not withheld anything from me besides you in as much as you are his wife, and how could I do this great evil and I will have sinned to the Almighty (Gen. 39:7-9)."

The unique trop (cantillation) known as a shalsheles of the word "and he refused," implies that it is essentially separate from the words that follow. Furthermore, the phrasing also indicates that Yosef's explanation was not in of itself his act of refusal. If the verse would have said something like, "And he refused by saying, 'No madam, I simply cannot do such a thing, it would be terribly wrong..." then we would have understood that his statement is his very act of refusal. The way the verse is in fact worded, though, implies that the "and he refused," was the act of refusal in of itself, and that the words that follow are not the description of that act but Yosef's explanation of that action to his master's wife.

This may seem like a relatively minor and subtle aspect of textual analysis, but in fact, this observation brings us to the awareness of a major fundamental principle in life.

Yosef was faced with temptation - he was challenged. The yeitzer hara charged at him full force in the form of a very forward (and forbidden) woman. Let us not forget that Yosef was far away from his father's home of kedusha (holiness) and morality, had been terribly hurt by his brothers who sold him into slavery; and now found himself as a young, good-looking man enjoying the "lap of luxury" as the prestigious, estate-manager of one of Egypt's high-ranking elite.

So, what does Yosef do? What indeed is one to do in such a situation?

The first response must be "I refuse to deal with you at all!" When you know that the yeitzer hara is attacking, it is critical in that first moment to be aware that you are being tempted with the forbidden and that the almost-automatic response must be a firm and resounding "NO!"

If one allows the yeitzer hara to engage him in a discussion then the battle is already tipped towards the side of failure. The moment one starts having thoughts such as, "Oh, but it will be so nice….Yeah, but you know it's wrong…Well, maybe just this one time and then…But how could you do that to…Oh, but I just can't shake off the desire to…" means that the yeitzer hara has already gained a very strategic foothold. The amount of strength it takes to win the battle once such a process has begun is nothing short of titanic. Is it still doable? Sure. But it is really hard because once the yeitzer hara has succeeded in drawing the person into a discussion he has already achieved the upper hand.

Therefore, the most effective strategy in battling the yeitzer hara is to avoid the battle altogether by immediately reacting with a sharp, complete, and utter refusal to even get involved with the issue. "No! I absolutely refuse to even hear what you have to say to justify your 'request', it is absolutely not up for discussion!" This is the critical, momentous act of "and he refused" - to immediately and utterly refuse the evil inclination.

Once Yosef made it absolutely clear that his response to her request is complete and absolute refusal, only then could he attempt to explain to her the reasons behind his decision. And, in fact, it actually makes more sense to understand that Yosef was not explaining his reason for refusing. Note that the bulk of Yosef's explanation focuses on the point that agreeing to her seduction would be a horrible betrayal of Potiphar's beneficence and trust. Only at the end does Yosef mention that it would be a sin toward Hashem. Shouldn't that last point be the primary reason for refusal and not merely a footnote? What is most reasonable, then, is that of course Yosef's main motivation for refusing was in order that he not do a transgression. But he is not about to explain that to her, because as far as she is concerned there is one thing and one thing only that Yosef wants her to know; and that is, "I absolutely and unequivocally refuse your request!"

So, what was Yosef doing by verbalizing this "explanation"? He was trying to convey concepts to her that would perhaps motivate her to cease her attempts at seducing him. Yosef was acutely aware that winning a battle does not necessarily mean that one has won the war, and that so long as she may continue her seduction attempts he would remain in great danger irrespective of his original, flat-out refusal. Removing oneself, if possible, from the source of temptation is as important as the initial, absolute refusal. Therefore, he made an attempt at convincing her of the impropriety of her desire so that she may stop from attempting to fulfill it. Indeed, the pesukim that follow state how she tried to seduce Yosef day after day, and how by that point there was no discussion between them whatsoever, just continued, flat-out refusal on Yosef's part; because at that point there was no longer any point in trying to convince her of the evil of her desire, it wouldn't help. At that point, engaging her in any form of conversation could only cause problems. And when that fateful day came when she found herself alone with Yosef in the house and she grabbed his shirt and said, "Lie with me," he did nothing other than slip himself loose of his shirt, leaving it in her hands, and ran out of the house straight into the marketplace (Gen. 39:11-12). Once again: immediate, complete, and utter refusal.

This fundamental principle has applications in so many aspects of life. Whether one feels one's anger flaring, an urge to indulge in the forbidden, or an impulse to do the unwise, this tool stands ever ready by one's side to serve as the weapon for immediate and complete victory.

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