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Friday Night Sermon (12/20/2019): "Avoiding Evil Things"

In our morning prayers, we ask Hashem to accustom us to study His Torah and attach ourselves to his commandments. The word “religion” comes from the Latin root “to adhere”. We ask G-d to NOT bring us into the power of error, the power or transgression and sin. We ask Hashem to keep us far from the Evil Inclination and to distance us from an evil person. We also ask Him to attach us to the Good Inclination.

This week’s portion of the Torah, “Vayeshev”, shows us how Joseph faced a similar dilemma. Joseph is Jacob’s favorite son, a reminder of his favorite wife who had just recently died. While Joseph’s brothers are out in the pastures working the family business, Joseph is home studying Torah with his father. Joseph’s brothers are jealous. It doesn’t help that Joseph now has a special coat of nobility and has dreams that his family bows down to him.

Joseph’s brothers then kidnap him and sell him off to traders. Joseph ends up in the court of one of the Pharaoh’s ministers managing his household. Joseph then has to avoid the seduction of the minister’s wife. Because of her subsequent accusations, Joseph ends up in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.

So what good did it do for him to stay away from an evil companion when the evil companion came after him? There’s more to the story.

Later on, Joseph impresses the Pharaoh with his interpretation of the latter’s dreams. He ends up saving the area from starvation through famine and ends up the viceroy of the court of Egypt. He is married with two sons. These sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, live in the midst of pagans, yet they remain faithful to their father’s heritage. They mingle little with their fellow citizens and adhere to a life of morality and ethics. While no one is perfect, for the most part, our ancestors showed us how to behave amid depravity. Joseph goes on to save the known civilized world from famine and each Erev Shabbat we bless our sons that they be like Ephraim and Manasseh who maintained their integrity while interacting with that society.

Most of what we know about Joseph’s behavior is speculation and Midrash. Ephraim and Manasseh were born of an Egyptian princess who supposedly adopted Joseph’s code of morals and behavior, ie Torah. Hence how the two sons had a high level of morality. Consider as well that Joseph was living in Egypt and governing under an Egyptian moniker. Here, then, he ended up staying away from an evil companion and staying with a good companion.

What happens when we associate with an evil companion? We start to adopt their point of view and take on and sanction their behavior. Evil can be strong and tempting.

Probably the first thoughts that come to mind is the peer pressure that kids feel in their developmental years. There always seem to be one or two leaders of the pack, depending on the size of the pack, who exerts the influence. The rest of the crowd goes along to be accepted and feel “cool”.

This explains bullying. Bullies do not harass anyone stronger than them; it’s always someone weaker. How do you explain the fact that no one in the group confronts the leader that this is a weaker person, not fair and perhaps better challenges await? Being part of the group is more important than any personal integrity.

This is what happens when you don’t stay far from the evil inclination or an evil companion. You get sucked in.

What makes evil so attractive? Consider Joseph in this week’s portion. He was barely a 20-something discovering his sexuality. Like almost all people in the world, he had an ego to protect. Compound this with him being in a foreign land with a different culture. His ego was vulnerable to a boost.

Along comes a woman, older and probably very attractive since she was royalty, who is attracted to young Joseph. She probably had esteem issues of her own, being married to an important prince in the royal court who was busy with his duties and not around much. She wanted to feel attractive, desired and probably powerful as well.

Joseph wavered. We see this as part of the Torah cantillations. There is a special cantillation, found only four times in the Torah, that is long and wavering. The Massoretes (who arranged the Torah 2000 years ago in its format) placed “shelshelet” there to emphasize that Joseph, himself, was wavering. Should he keep far from an evil companion or give in to the temptation of his ego? A classic example of the struggle between the good and evil inclinations.

So, yes, Joseph did get into trouble and ended up spending eleven (11) years in prison. But imagine his punishment if he had succumbed. And look at his reward for staying away from an evil companion. He was second-in-charge of the most powerful culture in the civilized world and was very well-to-do.

A very important lesson about keeping far from an evil companion.

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