The Coward, the Hero
Knowing your weaknesses is your greatest strength
In this week’s Torah reading, Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers and ended up in Egypt, in the house of Potifar. He rose through the ranks of Potifar’s household and became the chief manager of the estate. Not long after, Potifar’s wife took a liking to him and began tempting him to enter into a sinful relationship. She maliciously tried to seduce him, to no avail. One day, when no one else was present, she grabbed him by his clothing and demanded that he comply with her desires. Joseph reacted by immediately running outside, leaving behind the garment she clutched in her hand.
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (in Darash Moshe) points to this episode as an important lesson in combating the Yetzer Hara (the evil inclination tempting man to act improperly). Joseph’s dramatic reaction is a model in the best way to react when one finds himself in a situation where he is being enticed to sin. Perhaps one would think that the true hero is the one who stands up to the challenge and resists the lure. One could easily imagine that remaining within the situation and refusing to give in to the desire is what really proves one’s loyalty, by standing strong and not escaping. The reality is not so. The number one tactic advised by the Torah is to flee the scene when possible as to avoid confrontation with the temptation altogether. What the Torah wants from us is to recognize our potential for weakness and to keep ourselves as far away as possible from trouble. By contrast, showing how afraid we are of falling prey to our desires which could lead us to act improperly is the greatest form of loyalty to our Creator. Running away from the situation of temptation is the most preferable act of service one can do.
There was once a Yeshivah boy (a boy who attends a school for Talmud study) who received a brand new tablet as a gift. This boy, however, had no desire to possess such a gadget. He was well aware of the great spiritual danger that it posed. Along with its internet capabilities was the potential of accessing inappropriate material, and he did not wish to engage the challenge. Without hesitation, he ran to the window, threw it out and watched it smash into smithereens. His Rebbi (mentor at the Yeshivah) heard about the incident and was very impressed with his determination. But there was one thing which he was puzzled by, and he called the boy aside and asked him, “I understand why you did not want to keep the tablet, but there is one thing I don’t understand. This tablet was brand new and surely had substantial value. Why did you have to break it to pieces? Why didn’t you want to sell it at least and get some money from it?”
“Rebbi,” the boy said, “the temptations of the tablet are so great that I didn’t want to hold on to it for another minute! If I would have taken the time to find a buyer, who knows if I would have been able to control myself in the interim…”
This principle can be applied to numerous situations in life and is not limited to temptations of immorality. For instance, one could find himself in a situation where he is tempted to take someone else’s money without anyone noticing the difference. More often than not, we like to trust ourselves; and too often we find that we are not as strong as we thought we were… The real hero is the one who follows the example of Joseph. The one who acknowledges the potential of the pitfall and runs away to avoid confrontation with the temptation, not the one who chooses to engage it.