Innocence in Disguise – Vayieshev 5777

It’s back; for the third and final time in the Book of Breishis we encounter our longest Trop (musical note), the Shalsheles.  Here it is placed on the word “וימאן and he refused”, when Yoseph resisted the (quite vigorous) overtures from Potiphar’s wife. (39:8 – the 2nd Passuk in Shishi)


According to what we have said previously that the Shalsheles denotes cognitive dissonance, this would seem to imply that Yosef actually did want to give in and accept her offer. In his heart that is what he wanted, but his mind won over and he was eventually able to resist. But even that resistance didn’t stand strong, for three verses later we are told how Yoseph came home on a festive day to ‘do his work’, knowing that no-one else would be in the house. Yes, ‘to do his work’ is (according to one opinion in the Talmud) a euphemism for giving in to Potiphera’s overtures!


However, what I find even more fascinating is not that Yoseph, identified by the Torah itself as a Tzaddik, was actually prepared to commit adultery, it’s the fact that he didn’t! The Talmud explains that what stopped Yoseph from sinning was when he saw the reflection of his face, which resembled that of his father Yaackov, in Potiphera’s eyes. Do you know how close you need to be to someone to see your face in their eyes? Plus he was already naked!


Cognitive dissonance indeed.


The temptation must have been overwhelming, except he didn’t give in.


It takes two to tango, and the second player in this episode Potiphera is always castigated as an evil woman. However, it would seem from a close reading of the Biblical commentators that she wasn’t entirely bad. She is compared with Tamar who earlier on in the Sedra is credited with acting for the sake of Heaven and thus being blessed with sons who would be the ancestors of Kings and indeed Moshiach. Where though is Potiphera’s righteousness? She tried to seduce an innocent young man, and then when she fails she causes him to be cast into jail.


Rashi explains that Potiphera had seen prophetically that she was destined to have children from Yoseph; she knew her destiny and was prepared to pursue it even though it would have put her in a difficult position. Then when her first plan fails, she understood that it was not through her specifically but rather her daughter* Osnat who would marry Yoseph and bear his children. She then embarks on a plan to keep Yoseph in Egypt until Osnat would be old enough to marry, even though it casts her in a negative light. All in order to play her part in the Divine Plan, which she had been privileged to have been made privy to.


The Rebbe draws our attention to this Rashi and notes how easy it is to judge someone unfavourably when we are not in full knowledge of the facts.


Wishing you all a Shabbat Shalom and a Lichtiger Chanukah,


Rabbi Dovid

*Osnat was actually the adopted daughter of the Potiphars, and was in fact the biological daughter of Dinah and it was only when Yoseph saw an amulet that she wore stating her ancestry that he agreed to marry her.

Musical Attraction – {Vayerah 5777}

I love posh sounding words and phrases and remember teaching Chaya what ‘penultimate’ meant when she was just approaching her third birthday!


In this week’s Sedra its the concept of ‘cognitive dissonance’ that really makes me chuckle. No, I don’t know how to say it in Hebrew, but its actually the musical note utilised to represent that concept, that interests me. {Check out the word ‘liminal’ as well!!}


I’m referring of course to the ‘Shalshelet’ the longest musical note (trop) in the Torah, and used only 4 times; 3 in the Book of Breishis and once in the Book of Vayikra.


The very first use is in our Sedra when Lot and his family are fleeing the destruction of Sodom (19:16).


It is placed on top of the word ‘Va’yismamah’ – and he hesitated.


What is the cognitive dissonance here? It’s Lots’ hesitation. His mind knows that he must flee from his city; it and everything in it is being utterly destroyed in an upheaval from below and above. Yet his heart is still pinning for the wealth and honour that was accorded to him in Sodom.


He knows the right course of action, but he is being emotionally torn.


The Shalsheles, the long musical note {It is 30 notes long and it goes up and down the scale three complete times} on that word, poetically and beautifully describes the see-saw of emotions, the there-and-back journey of the mind and heart.


Whilst this musical note might only appear 4 times in the Torah, and only another 3 times across the entire Prophets and Scriptures, I believe that its message is one that resonates in our daily lives. Very often we are torn between what is intellectually/morally/religiously correct and what is emotionally strong. This is true in many areas of our lives; familial, religious, political, occupational.


Lot experiences it when he has to flee from Sodom. Eliezer (Avraham’s servant) experiences it when he has to find a wife for Yitzchak, as in truth he wanted his own daughter to marry him (24:12), and the most famous example is when Yosef is being seduced by Potiphar’s wife, he is torn between the physical and emotional attraction and the knowledge that what he was about to do was wrong (39:8).


The final example is when Moshe has to offer a Sacrifice before anointing his brother Aaron, when he actually wanted it for himself; his religious obligation was being torn by personal desires (Vayikra 8:23).


In every example, the Torah specifically tells us that this cognitive dissonance took place, that these individuals, ranging from Lot – a resident of Sodom, and Eliezer – a mere servant through to Yosef and Moshe, all struggled with it. Yet in the end, they all made the right choice. They didn’t obfuscate for too long, they struggled but in the end they elucidated the situation and did what was right!! (See what I did there!!)


No one is free from the emotional journey. No one is given absolute smooth sailing. Everyone struggles with what feels right and what is right.


Yet, just because you struggle doesn’t mean that you give up or that you are bad. It just means that you are human and that G-d trusts you, otherwise He wouldn’t have put you in the situation in the first place.


So next time you might struggle; grab that long musical note, sing the song of cognitive dissonance and know that you are not alone. Many have been there before you, many will be there after you, and please G-d you too will do what is right.


Shabbat Shalom,


Rabbi Dovid