Curbing Desire

Double Mitzvah Jewrotica Parsha

Written by Sender Rozesz. Sender Rozesz is a practicing attorney with a background in Jewish pluralistic education for adults. Sender Rozesz is Jewrotica’s resident Double Mitzvah columnist. The views reflected in his writing represent his own personal views, and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations, institutes or associations with whom he may be affiliated.

Rated PG-13

We have so many wild desires and passions, tempestuous urges and impulses. We probably only share a fraction of what goes on in our collective mind; our fear of judgment, our sense of isolation, leaves us holding our truly wild fantasies close to our chest.

Where do these come from? What stops us from indulging in them – or at least in all of them?

According to Sigmund Freud, deep in our subconscious, we are a cauldron of seething excitations and urges, which he called the “id.” This is a part of our psyche that is constantly striving for pleasure and gratification. All of those yearnings, those sexual frustrations – they come from our id.

But then we also have what Freud describes as the “super-ego.” The super-ego is our conscience; a tool constructed from the cultural mores that we pick up throughout life, but primarily from the guidance and teachings of our parents. Our conscience has the power to control our raging desires. Our conscious is that powerful, gentle – and sometimes not-so-gentle – grip that pulls us away from our latent desires, and sets us away from the path of danger.

Clearly, though, our super-ego, our conscience, often shows up late to the party. It doesn’t always act as an automatic veto, and we therefore get ourselves into a fair amount of mischief. So what determines when the super-ego appears to rein us in? That is the job of the ego. Our ego, per Freud, is the realistic part of ourselves. It wants to give into the id; it wants to empty the contents of our bubbling cauldron on the world. But it knows that our long-term health and viability depends upon our delaying gratification – sometimes indefinitely. Our conscience leaks into our ego, and the fluctuations in the strength of our conscience, our perception of reality, and the power of our urges, account for the differences in our success in curbing our impulses.

From the perspective of Jewish mysticism, the battle raging within us is due to the presence of two distinct souls that inhabit our body and psyche. One soul is known as our animal soul. Like an animal, it’s instincts are for self-gratification; and like an animal, it brings a powerful if simple energy to achieve that goal. Our second soul, however, is our Divine soul. Whereas the animal soul is on fours, eyes towards the ground, unseeing, a slave to its nature, the Divine soul is transcendent and deliberate, seeing the truth of the world around us. And the two souls battle for mastery over our vehicles of expression; our thought, our speech, and our action.

So you can have a pious person, in the middle of a sincere prayer at a particularly holy moment, who may suddenly experience an explosion of lust in his thoughts. This in no way invalidates the sincerity or righteousness of his prayer – it is merely that his animal soul is uncomfortable with the Divine soul’s mastery over the body, and is seeking its own ascendance. In a sense, we all have split personalities, as our mind and body acts as a battleground for our two souls constantly warring for supremacy.

Given our constant struggle, sometimes it feels as though it would be nice if the Torah spoke more directly to our challenges, by showing examples of great men who struggled, yet who still managed to overcome their temptations. Yet, thus far, it is hard to find an example of suppressed desire among our biblical forbears. It seems that they are either perfectly righteous, or doing whatever they feel like (and often the commentaries will justify their doing what they feel like by explaining that what they did was actually perfectly righteous – but that’s for another time).

Adam and Eve were holy until they ate the fruit. Noah was holy until he got drunk in a post-flood stupor. Abraham was holiest, but he left Canaan to descend to Egypt, and pretended his wife was his sister, knowing that she would be taken captive. Reuben slept with his father’s concubine (or moved his bed). Jacob was unapologetic about his favoritism towards his wife Rachel and her sons. Judah had sex with Tamar, thinking her to be a prostitute. Where do you have an example of someone who says: “I really want to – but I won’t”? Where do you have someone demonstrating a much needed exercise of conscience, a victory of our Divine soul over our animal soul? Where do you have someone “real”, someone struggling?

Enter Joseph, in this week’s Parshah of Vayeishev.

Joseph was hot. He was hot, and he knew it. The Midrash states that he would frequently be found “fixing his hair and touching up his eyes so that he would appear handsome.” Genesis Rabba, 84:7. Later in the Parshah, the Torah confirms that, like his mother before him, “Joseph had handsome features and a beautiful complexion.” Genesis, 39:6.

When his brothers sold him into slavery, he was purchased by Potiphar, the chief butcher. He was blessed with Divine favor, and was soon appointed over Potiphar’s household.

At that point, “his master’s wife lifted up her eyes to Joseph, and she said, ‘Lie with me.'” Joseph refused. Potiphar’s wife persisted, and Joseph persisted in his refusal. Perhaps it was because Joseph was so holy that he was not tempted by her offer? Perhaps her married and Egyptian status was such a taboo that it was not even a struggle for him? Perhaps this is yet another story about a perfect ascetic on a pedestal?

Not so.

“It came about on a certain day, that he came to the house to do his work, and none of the people of the house were there in the house. So she grabbed him by his garment, saying, ‘Lie with me! But he left his garment in her hand and fled and went outside.” Genesis, 39:11-12.

What was he doing in her house? What “work” did he intend to do there? And why, suspiciously, was it on a day when nobody else was around? In the Talmud (Sotah 36b), there is a dispute about Joseph’s purpose on that day. One opinion is that he literally had housework to do, and Potiphar’s wife took advantage of the situation to throw herself at him.

The second opinion, however, is far more interesting. It says that Joseph deliberately went to her house “to perform his needs with her.” In other words, it was Joseph that was taking advantage of the absence of witnesses to succumb to Potiphar’s wife’s seduction. He wanted her.

So what happened? What interrupted the illicit lovebirds?

The Talmud says that “his father’s image came and appeared to him through the window.” Joseph’s conscience, his super-ego, kicked in, and he saw the one thing that could jolt him from his lusty stupor and restore him to himself: he saw his father, and he recalled his father’s teachings, lessons and guidance. With that boost, Joseph was able to once again assume control of his impulses, and force his seething urges back into the pot.

And that was why he ran. Because Joseph was a real person, who knew the power of temptation. He understood the struggle of the souls, and that often we stand on a precipice, where the balance of power can be tilted in either direction. The intrusion of his father’s face was enough to prevent him from succumbing for the moment, but Potiphar’s wife was still there, warm, beautiful and wanting him. What would the next moment look like? Joseph understood that his vision of Jacob was sufficient to buy him enough time to recover his senses, and to remove himself from a situation that he knew he was too weak to resist – but it was up to him to take the next step and to hightail it out of there.

To this, I can relate.