As the snow began to fall last Sunday night, hopes rose for that wonderful and rare occasion in the UK – a potential snow day. A day when schools close and children can build snowmen instead of going to school!
By Monday morning a rather impressive amount of snow had fallen. Unfortunately, due to technology, snow days have now become zoom days – lessons online!
Still, my son was ecstatic, and we happily trudged through the snow to shul that morning. It was very special. At that time of the morning, not many people had disturbed the snow and it was just beautiful to walk to shul through such a landscape.
And here we are, four days later – and no sign of the snow disappearing. Yet is no longer has that beauty, that wonder – it is just cold and icy.
My thoughts turned to the last great freeze I can remember.
It was many years ago, when I was still working at Stanmore Shul and I had driven into the car park for Shul on Sunday morning and I suddenly had an epiphany.
Why? The whole week before the car park had been an ice rink with every inch covered in thick ice and snow. The thaw began overnight on Saturday night (will be similar this year!) and by the time I came to shul that Sunday morning, most of the ice and snow had gone, but not all.
All across the car park were little areas of ice that had still not melted and one large amount of ice remained under some bushes.
Why had it not all melted? The answer was different for the little areas of ice and those under the bushes.
The little areas of ice were obviously thicker that the surrounding ice and therefore took longer to melt. Whereas the ice under the bushes was not as exposed to the sunlight and thus also took longer to melt.
Our Jewish identity and affiliation can be compared to the ice and the sun on that Sunday morning. The ice is our Jewish identity and the sun warming up the ice are the outside influences that are having such a detrimental effect, that are creating the assimilation that plagues us and is melting away parts of the Jewish community that we can see everywhere.
However, there are two solutions as shown by the ice. The first is to make sure your Judaism is strong, your observance of Halacha focused. That there is meaning, depth and joy in your Jewish practice. It is solid and substantial which means you will hopefully resist whatever the secular world has to throw at it.
Then there is the second solution. Just don’t expose yourself to the sun, do not allow the rays of the sun to reach you. Do not be involved in the modern world or do so very minimally. That worldview is working and is growing year on year.
Both solutions work.
Yet Mizrachi UK believe passionately in the first and I believe it is the solution for the vast majority of our community. It is a way of life championed by many throughout our long history. Whether by the Rambam, Rav Hirsch or in modern times Rav Soloveitchik and Rabbi Sacks.
And of course, Yosef ha Tzadik, whom we meet for the first time in this weeks parsha.
I have mentioned this before many years ago, but it is one of my favourite Divrei Torah.
Yosef has been sold by his brothers and is now a servant in Potiphar’s household. He is left alone with the beautiful and seductive Mrs Potiphar and she tried to seduce him.
The Torah tells it the way it was.
‘Yosef was handsome of form and handsome of appearance and after a while his masters wife took notice of Yosef and said come to bed with me’ Bereshit 39: 6-7
The Torah continues with Yosef’s answer – vayimaen – and he refused.
Over this verb the musical note is a shalshelet. The shalshelet is an unusual note, it is sung up and down as if unable to move onto the next note. Rabbi Joseph Ibn Caspi explains that a shalshelet is meant to convey a psychological state of uncertainty and indecision or as Rabbi Sacks says, the music of ambivalence.
Vayimaen – and he refused. It is a shalshelet, Yosef was uncertain? Surely not!
We can only imagine the conflict in Yosef’s mind. On the one hand it would be a betrayal of everything his family stood for, a betrayal of the moral code and betrayal as part of the covenant with God.
Yet the temptation must have been intense, he was far, far from home, no one could see him and a beautiful woman throwing herself at him.
Vayimaen – there is uncertainty
But he refused, he didn’t go through with it, why not?
The Gemara sheds some light on how he overcame this awesome test.
‘The image of his father appeared to him in the window and said ‘Yosef. Your brother’s names are destined to be inscribed on the stones of the high priest’s breastplate and you will be among them. Do you want your name to be erased? Do you want to be called an adulterer?’ Sotah 36b
The Alshich points out the obvious problem with the Gemara’s answer. Yaacov was nowhere near Egypt, he was back in Canaan. So what does the Talmud mean that Yosef saw the image of his father?
The Alshich gives a powerful answer.
Who was Yosef? He was a Jew who had been raised in the house of Yaacov, he had his values his identity.
When it came to the crunch he had the ability to reach into himself and imagine that his father was at the window, all that he believed in all that he stood for would be destroyed if he succumbed to Potiphar’s wife. He had a tremendous inner strength, that didn’t just appear, it was who he was. He was Yosef son of Yaacov, grandson of Yitzchak, great grandson of Avraham, one of the 12 tribes of Israel – and he refused.
We have to ask ourselves the question. Do our children, do our grandchildren have it in them to resist the temptation. Take out Potiphar’s wife and put in University, western culture, social media. The temptations are huge, can our young people conjure up their Yiddishkeit at the window?
Can they feed off strong family memories of the Shabbat table, of learning in shul, of davening every Shabbat. Can they strengthen themselves with the teachings of Moshe Chayim Luzzatos – Mesilat Yesharim, or Nachmanides great letter the Igeret ha Ramban, or the eternal teachings of Pirkei Avot?
If we want to increase the odds that our children and grandchildren will not be tempted by the modern-day Mrs Potiphar, we must give them a solid Jewish experiential background from a young age and give that through the most powerful transmitter of Torah and tradition – the Jewish home and the Jewish community.
So, as we light those first lights on Sunday night, we must reflect that the temptation of Greek culture over 2000 years ago that drew the Hellenists away from our tradition are the same battles we face today.
Then we overcame with a rededication to Torah, the same solutions are needed today.