Parshat Vayishlach, Genesis 37:1-40:23
The Torah is a very concise document. Every phrase and every word is carefully measured out for maximum effect. When there is a superfluous word or a phrase out of syntax, it is deliberately done in order to teach an extra point.
So when in this week’s Torah portion, a word is repeated four times in six verses, it screams for our attention.
Potiphar’s wife grabs Joseph by his cloak, according to the account in Genesis 39:12-18. “Sleep with me,” she pleads He runs away from her, leaving his cloak in her hand and flees “outside.” When she realizes that he left his cloak in her hand and fled “outside,” she calls her household servants. “See,” she says. “He brought us a Hebrew man to play games with us! He came to rape me, but I screamed as loud as I could. When he heard me scream and call for help, he ran ‘outside’ and left his cloak with me.”
She keeps Joseph’s cloak with her until his master comes home, and she tells him the same story. “The Hebrew slaves that you brought us came to play games with me! When I screamed and called for help, he fled ‘outside,’ leaving his cloak with me.”
Based on the repetition of “outside,” the biblical commentators make a connection between the narrative about Joseph and an earlier story about Abraham.
Back in the Torah portion of Lech Lecha, we read: “He (G-d) took him (Abram) outside and said: ‘Look at the sky and count the stars … that is how numerous your descendants will be.’”
The commentators say the use of the word “outside” there is an indication that G-d gave the Jewish people the ability to transcend the natural order. G-d told Abram that his descendants would be able to do exceptional things spiritually.
So too here, the text is hinting with the repetition of the word “outside” that Joseph’s strength in resisting temptation and overcoming the situation he finds himself in is the result of the blessing that G-d gave Abram. As a descendant of Abram, Joseph is able to do things that go above and beyond the natural world.
We could say the same thing about the holiday of Chanukah, which begins this Tuesday evening. We thank G-d for letting a small, weak army triumph over a large, strong army. It is not supposed to happen that way. But it did.
The miracles of Chanukah were that the Maccabees — descendants of Abraham and Joseph — were able to live according to G-d’s will and transcend the natural world.
As for us, we live in the real world. But we also know what is truly important — the opportunity to do acts of kindness, perform mitzvot, to study Torah and to build our community.
Shabbat shalom and Happy Chanukah.
Rabbi Eli Seidman is the director of pastoral care at the Jewish Association on Aging. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.