In this week's parasha, we move into the heart of the Joseph story. We learn that Joseph has two dreams which make him the focus of his brothers' anger. They throw him in a pit, take his tunic (which is dipped in blood and presented to Jacob, who mourns his apparent death), and Joseph is carried off to Egypt where he becomes a slave in the house of Potiphar, the Egyptian chamberlain of Pharaoh. Joseph works his way up to become the head of Potiphar's household staff.
Just when things seem to be a bit more stable, we are told that Potiphar's wife cast her eye on Joseph and propositioned him. "Lie with me," she demands. And what was Joseph's response? Va-yi-ma-ayn ─ "And he refused!" A simple reading of the words contained in the Torah seems clear. Mrs. Potiphar propositioned Joseph, and he said, "Absolutely not."
The taamim, the cantillation marks that were formalized by the Masoretes over a thousand years ago, seem to provide a more nuanced version of events. There is a relatively rare ta-am called a shalshelet that occurs only four times in the entire Torah. The shalshelet wavers back and forth about four times, as if to say: "On one hand…but on the other hand."
It turns out that one of the four places is over the word va-yi-ma-ayn. The taamim suggest that although Joseph did reach the right decision and refused the advances of a married woman, it was not a decision he arrived at simply or quickly. He struggled. He was tempted. He hesitated for a moment...and then 'he refused.'
The rabbis of old taught that every person is believed to be hounded by the yetser ha-ra. "The greater the man (or woman), the greater his (her) Evil Inclination." (B. Sukkot 52a)
"Busy yourselves with words of Torah and the inclination to evil will not rule over you." (Sifre Deuteronomy, Piska 45) In other words, each and every person faces temptation to do the wrong thing. In today's world, those enticements surround us much of the time. In the end, our mandate is to fight off temptation and choose to do the right thing.
The rabbis remind us that Jewish learning not only offers wisdom and knowledge, it also provides the inspiration and inner strength we need to make good decisions in life. How true it is! So the next time you are tempted to do something you know is the wrong thing to do, sing out a shalshelet loud and clear. Acknowledge your struggle and then do the right thing. There is no better feeling.