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Home » Vayeshev

Vayeshev: Countering the Voice of Temptation

Submitted by on November 24, 2005 – 5:39 amNo Comment | 3,067 views


The Magic Potion

“Rabbi, what can I do to silence my inner voice,” asked the man. When the rabbi replied that this voice might never be silenced, the man exclaimed, “But it’s driving me crazy. Is there any advice that can help me overcome it?”

“Ah, overcome it,” mused the rabbi, “Overcoming the voice is not hard at all. There is one magical word and when you say it, the voice is instantly overcome. It doesn’t go away, mind you. It rarely ever does that, but it can be overcome.”

“A magical word that will deliver me from the brink of temptation? Please share it with me,” the man begged. The rabbi smiled and firmly replied, “No.” countering the voice of temptation - innerstream

“Why not? Please, I beg you.”

“No,” repeated the Rabbi. Crestfallen the man turned to leave, when the rabbi softly explained that word “no” was, in fact, the magical word.

There are no magic potions that silence the voice of temptation, known in Hebrew as “yetzer hara,” but we can choose to accept the voice or reject it. If we reject it, it is sure to return, but when it does, we can reject it again. Saying no again and again is not easy, but that is exactly what Joseph did and we, his children, can learn to do the same.

Just Say No

Joseph was sold by his brothers into slavery and was taken into the home of an Egyptian nobleman who appointed him to direct the vast operations of his estate. The slave became master over everyone in the house, with one exception, the mistress of the house. Joseph was explicitly directed to steer clear of her. (1)

The mistress, however, took a liking to the young man and courted him. She was a noble and highly regarded woman who was accustomed to having her way. Few men could resist her wiles and she did all she could to charm Joseph. (2)

She never appeared in the same attire twice. She would change her garments morning, afternoon and evening. She frequently propositioned him, and when he refused, she entreated him simply to lie with her. When he refused once more, she asked if they could sit together, fully clothed, and simply talk.

She chased him for twelve full months, but Joseph refused every request. (3) The cantillation note over the biblical words, “and he refused,” is an emphatic, thrice repeated, melody. The repetitive melody indicates that Joseph refused adamantly and persistently. (4) She kept coming back and he kept refusing. (5)

We can learn from our ancestor Joseph. We can be as persistent with our yetzer hara as he was with her. It will keep returning, but we can keep refusing. One magic word repeated over and over. A final and uncompromising, “No.”(6)

The Art of Negotiation

Joseph’s first response was to refuse, but refusal alone is not enough. We must also articulate our reason for refusal. We must understand why we refuse so that we might be motivated to refuse again. (7)

A Slippery Slope

The problem with negotiation is that our evil inclination is rather crafty. As soon as we offer an argument for resistance, we immediately conceive brilliant counterpoints.(8) When Joseph pointed out that her husband might discover them, she suggested that she could have her husband killed. (9)

Such is the method  of the yetzer hara. It first introduces an innocuous idea and then craftily suggests larger and more hideous ones. (10) Joseph recoiled from the suggestion. He further pointed out that once her husband was dead, their relationship would no longer be illicit. Without the illicitness, the relationship would lose its scintillating appeal and she would soon tire of him. (11)

We, too, must remember as we counter our voices of temptation that ideas of sin seem scintillating only because of their forbidden nature. The act itself is often unappealing. It is the sinful nature that draws us. Remembering this point helps us resist its appeal. (12)

Fear of G-d

When Joseph explained that he was afraid of G-d, she tried to convince him that G-d wouldn’t know of their liaison. To demonstrate her point, she led him into her private chambers and threw a cover over her personal idol. Joseph replied that he was not thinking of an idol but of G-d, creator of heaven and earth, who cannot be blinded. She then tried to dissuade him from his faith, but Joseph remained resolute.

Apathy toward G-d is our yetzer’s favorite tactic. When we recoil from the suggestion of sin, our inner voice mocks us and incredulously questions G-d ‘s existence or his interest in the minutia of our lives. As Joseph did, we too must remain alert to this tactic and learn to resist it.

The Moral Argument

When she saw that she could not entice Joseph, she resorted to a moral argument. She told him that she saw in her horoscope that they were destined to have children together. She didn’t know that she had erred in her astrology, for it was her daughter, not the noblewoman, who was destined to marry Joseph. (13)

Moral justification is another tactic our yetzer employs. The yetzer often seeks to justify immoral acts to which we are tempted. We must guard ourselves against this tactic because the moral argument is difficult to navigate. It is difficult to know with any degree of certainty that our moral perspective is objective and therefore correct.

A Righteous Visage

According to one opinion, Joseph eventually succumbed to her wiles and entered her chamber for an illicit liaison. At that moment his father’s visage appeared to him. This had an immediate effect; it restored his resolve and he hastily fled her chambers. (14)

When we find ourselves in a moral dilemma, uncertain of which path to take, it is appropriate to conjure up the image of a righteous person and ask ourselves what he or she would say. We might be lured by our own temptations, but when the question is objectively applied to a person of unquestionable criteria, the answer is usually obvious.

Point of Reflection

As we reflect upon this story, we realize that our inner voice of temptation is a sophisticated and crafty opponent, but we also learn that we are able to overcome it. We know that G-d does not test us in ways we cannot withstand. Whatever he demands of us is always in accordance with our capabilities. (15)


  1. Genesis 39: 1-6.
  2. Commentary of Abarbanel Genesis 39: 7-10 (Don Yitzchak Abarbanel- Spain-1437-1508).
  3. He refused to look at her, so she fashioned a collar brace that forced him to look up at her. She invited him to sit with her on the couches where she entertained the noblemen, where they might sit fully robed and in public, but he continued to refuse. She threatened him with all manner of punishment and enticed him with all manner of bribes, but Joseph stood firm. For more detail, see Bereishit Rabbah, ch. 87, Midrash Tanchumah Vayeshev: 5, and Bab. Talmud Yuma, p. 35b. See also Commentary of Eben Ezra  (R. Abraham ben Meir ibn Ezra, Spain, 1092 –1167), Nachmanidies ( R. Moshe Ben Nachman, Spain 1194-1270) and Kli Yakar  (R. Ephraim Shlomo of Luntshitz, 1550-1619), ibid.
  4. G-d gave the written Torah to Moses with musical notes attached. These notes instruct the reader how to chant the words of the text. The musical interpretation of each note differs from community to community but the notes themselves are universally accepted. See Bab. Talmud Nedarim 37a
  5. See Toras Moshe Genesis 39: 8 (R. Moshe Alshich, Tzefat, 1508-1600). He refused to provide a reason so as to deny her any opportunity for persuasion and seduction. He  repulsed her firmly and absolutely. See Note #6.
  6. See Zohar, p. 190b.
  7. Only after he impressed her with his resolve did he allow himself to explain his reasons. Haamek Davar understood that Joseph eventually explained his reason only because he wanted to convince her to stop pestering him. Abarbanel understood that he explained his reasons the first time she approached him, but when she continued to pester him, he refused to talk to her about it.
  8. The yetzer hara is described as a wizened and sly king.
  9. Bereishit Rabbah 87: 5.
  10. Our sages wrote that today the yetzer asks us to perform a small crime and the next day it asks us to perform a larger crime. Zohar, p. 190b.
  11. The Midrash teaches that first he exclaimed, “Is it not enough that you invite me to sit in a party of adulterers, but you ask me to join a party of murderers? If it is intimate coition that you seek, then seek it with your husband who is permitted to you.” The only reason she wanted him was because he was forbidden to her. See Kli Yakar Genesis 39: 6.
  12. Commentary of Beis Halevi (R. Yoseph Ber Soloveitchik, Slutzk,1820- 1892) on Sukkah 52a.
  13. See commentary of Rashi (R. Shlomo Yitzchaki, Troyes France, 1040-1105) on Genesis 39: 1.
  14. Bab. Talmud Sotah, p. 36b. Tanchumah Vayeshev: 5. See also commentary of Rashi to Genesis 39: 11.
  15. Bamidbar Rabbah 12: 3.

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