Updated: Jun 15, 2021
The power of one’s environment in influencing one’s values, thoughts, and actions has been demonstrated time and again through countless social psychology studies. Even in the absence of overt peer pressure, the tendency of human beings to conform and adjust their beliefs and sensitivities to fit better with the cultural and societal norms around them is intrinsic and basic to development. In fact, it is evolutionarily beneficial to be able to adapt to changes, to new places, to fit in, in order to survive.
And yet, that adaptability comes at a price. Rav Wolbe emphasizes that one’s environment is fundamentally influential in developing and maintaining one’s middos. Sometimes, if we are lucky, we have a choice about where we live, who our neighbors are, and what values are being emphasized by those around us. As Jews in galus, however, we are inherently susceptible to the unfortunate yet certain reality that our environment is teeming with influences that are impediments to growth and spirituality. While it is expected that human beings adapt to environmental changes, we cannot afford to be so adaptable that we fade away into nothingness, forgotten, changed entirely, indistinguishable.
The Maharal compares Yosef to the heart of the Jewish people, because the functioning of our other limbs depends on the blood flow from the heart. In fact, Dovid HaMelech writes (Tehillim 80:2) that Klal Yisrael is “Katzon Yosef,” like Yosef’s sheep, for Yosef’s story, his actions, his strength, are woven into our spiritual DNA, and without his guidance and direction, we would be lost.
Yosef was the first Jew, the first of Bnei Yisrael, to find himself a stranger in a foreign land. And yet, taking a deeper look at Yosef’s life story, one cannot help but marvel at the outcome. How does a 17-year-old boy, hated and nearly murdered by his brothers, sold into slavery in a foreign country, not only survive and achieve astounding social and political success, but remain spiritually unblemished to the point that he is able to raise two children in Galus whose status is equal to that of the twelve tribes themselves? It is astonishing to read through Yosef’s story all the while knowing that, in the end, fathers the world over will bless their children to be “k’efraim u’ki’menashe,” like those children raised in a foreign land.
The story of Yosef HaTzadik is one of the most fundamental stories of Jewish faith and fortitude. Yosef’s tale of estrangement, enslavement, struggle, and salvation is packed with lessons that are crucial to the growth and survival of the Jewish people in exile. What was it that Yosef embodied that is so crucial for us to emulate?
The Pasuk (39:2-3) tells us that when Yosef was sold to Potiphar, “Hashem was with Yosef, and he became very successful… and his master saw that God was with him.” Rashi wonders, how could Potiphar, an idol worshipper, notice that God was contributing to Yosef’s success? Rashi explains that Potiphar knew about Hashem because “shem shamayim shagur bi’piv,” God’s name was constantly on Yosef’s lips. Yosef attributed all of his success in Potiphar’s house to its Source, Hakadosh Baruch Hu, saying things like, “im yirtzeh Hashem” and “Baruch Hashem” so often that even Potiphar began to catch on. Even after being thrown in jail, Yosef continues to demonstrate this unwavering and unapologetic faith in God; when Pharaoh marvels at Yosef’s dream interpretation, Yosef humbly responds, (41:17) “Biladai, Elokim Yaaneh es Shlom Pharaoh;” it is not me – it is Hashem who enables me to interpret these dreams. Yosef was not afraid of publicizing his faith in God and his relationship with Him, even to those who vehemently did not believe in God.
In a world where talking about God can often be complicated, even contentious, one may feel awkward or uncomfortable following in Yosef’s lead in such a manner. I had a supervisor who laughed when he asked each week how I was doing, and I invariably responded, “thank God!” because he had never heard someone mention God so frequently. And yet, it is for our own benefit to speak this way. When the environment around us swarms with beliefs antithetical to Torah Judaism, we cannot forget that we, too, make up the environment, and subsequently, we, too, can help to infuse our surroundings with Godliness.
In fact, this is part of why Yosef’s story always coincides with Chanukah, for the power of environmental influences was one of the primary struggles of the Jews during the Greek occupation. The Greeks had no desire to destroy the Jewish people in body and number, but rather to diffuse the Jewish influence, to instead swallow the Jewish people into the Hellenist agenda, to influence us just enough to strip us of everything that makes us separate and unique.
Alone and vulnerable in Egypt, Yosef faced this same challenge. There was absolutely no one, not a soul, to watch Yosef and scrutinize his deeds. He had no father to answer to, no rabbi or teacher or even peer before whom to be embarrassed or scared into behaving. Yosef lived entirely out of the bubble, and he survived because he brought the bubble with him. In addition to bringing God into the picture constantly, Yosef also demonstrated other tools with which we can overcome the powerful pull of environmental influences in Galus. When faced with Eishes Potiphar’s daily (daily!) attempts at seduction, Yosef was able to withstand the temptation, and flee for his life, an absolutely superhuman feat for any man, let alone a lonely, vulnerable teenager far from home and at risk of losing everything. How does Yosef do it?
Rashi notes that Yosef pictures his father, and immediately his desire for sin is quelled; thinking of what his father would think, of the Torah he learned with him, Yosef is able to regain control over himself. Similarly, it can be helpful to have a mentor, role model, or family member whose opinion you value, and to think of them to deter us from sin, if thinking of God is just too intangible.
Beyond this, however, the Sichos Mussar explains something astounding based on Rashi. Rashi (39:11) quotes the Gemara in Sota (36b) and says that Yosef saw “dmus dyukno shel aviv,” the likeness of his father, which stopped him from sinning. Rav Chaim Shmulevitz notes poignantly that Yosef and Yaakov looked very much alike. Yosef did not see an image of Yaakov, but rather envisioned his own potential. He saw, and understood, how great he could be, and he believed in himself, in his ability to overcome his own desires and challenges, and fortified himself with that belief and faith in his own potential. Even when we are in less-than-positive environments, our belief in ourselves and our tremendous potential can protect us from untoward influences.
There are myriad lessons to be learned from Yosef’s story, but these are just two that we can more readily implement.
First, belief in God, unapologetic faith and willingness to wear that faith with pride, is just one talisman against the power of the influence of Galus. The Maccabees interwove their declaration of faith, “Mi Kamocha Ba’Eilim Hashem,” into their name, their very battle cry. Today, we have the choice to shy away from speaking about God, or to own our faith and represent our unique identity by using God-focused language. When we are asked how we are doing, we can say “good,” or we can say “good, thank God.” God is the reason why we are good, whether we admit it or not. Saying it out loud serves only to fortify us, to protect us from the influences around us, to strengthen our faith as it did Yosef’s.
Second, the secret to overcoming our Yetzer Hara is to not forget, undersell, or minimize our own potential. When faced with a challenge, it is easy to say, “here we go again,” to say, “I’m not strong enough.” But Yosef teaches us once again the power of visualization, and of our own self-efficacy, to guide our actions. Belief in God is one talisman; belief in yourself is another.
This week, in the spirit of Chanukah’s approach, let’s embody these characteristics of Yosef to fortify ourselves in this dark and lengthy Galus. Be’Ezras Hashem, and if we can really envision our greatness and vast potential, we will be just as successful.