We are all familiar with the Kohen Gadol and the 12 stone “choshen” (breastplate) he wore. Each of these stones represented one of the sons of our father, Yaakov, but this breastplate was much more than just an artistic design of the Tribes of Israel. It was symbolic of unity – all the tribes together, on the chest of the High Priest – as he did his holy work in the Mishkan and then Bet Ha’Mikdash. When we are together… when all Jewish brothers put aside their differences and focus on the unique mission and purpose that we have been given… nothing can hold us back! And yet, one of the tribes almost didn’t make it. That’s correct – it came very close to having just 11 stones on the breastplate.
The story is a famous one… well, only the first half… because while everyone can quote the first part, very few can finish the job. Let me, therefore, quote the complete story – with no censorship. First some background: Yosef Ha’Tzaddik is in Egypt, far away from his family. “Yoseph grew to be well built and handsome…” Potiphar’s wife “cast her eyes upon Yoseph and said, ‘Sleep with me’. He adamantly refused… She spoke to Yoseph every day, but he would not pay attention to her… One day, (Yoseph) came to the house to do his work. None of the household staff was inside. (She) grabbed him and pleaded ‘Sleep with me”. He ran away from her… and fled outside” (B’reisheit 39:6-12 – translation by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan ztz”l in his sefer “The Living Torah”)
Now, let’s go to the Talmud (Sotah 36b) and see what happened “behind the scenes”. As stated above, we are familiar with the first part; how Yoseph almost succumbed to the temptation but – as the Talmud states; (Schottenstein edition) “At that moment, the visage of his father came and appeared to him in the window” – meaning that Yoseph saw the image of Yaakov, received the necessary “chizuk” and was then able to avoid sinning. Beautiful story… but that’s not what happened. He didn’t just see Yaakov’s face in the window… the Talmud states – very clearly – that, Yaakov spoke to Yoseph as well, and it was what he said – not just a picture of his face – that convinced Yosef to run away from Mrs. Potiphar.
Here's the continuation of the account in the Talmud; “He (Yaakov) said to him; “Yoseph! Your brothers are destined to be inscribed upon the stones of the ephod (and choshen – see Schottenstein note 32), and you are among them. Do you want your name to be erased from among them?” Upon hearing this – and not simply seeing Yaakov in the window – Yoseph gained the courage he needed, strengthened himself and avoided sinning. The Talmud continues; “Who caused (Yoseph) to be engraved upon the ephod stones? None other than the mighty power of Yaakov”
Quick review: Yoseph was about to sin but – at the last moment – saw a reflection of his father’s face. He then heard powerful words from his father saying that, if he commits this sin, only 11 of the tribes will have stones on the Kohen Gadol’s breastplate plus have their names engraved on the stones of the “ephod” (apron), but his name will be gone.
To me, the message is clear. No stone means no part of the Jewish future. The Kohen Gadol – and everything he represents – would not include the tribe of Yoseph. This one act would literally erase him from thousands of years to come. This started me thinking about what this means for us, today. Are we doing anything that will erase us from the Jewish future? Are there moments of “Mrs. Potiphar” that threaten our existence… and our stone on the breastplate? Very soon, the Kohen Gadol will return, in all his glory, to perform his work in the Bet Ha’Mikdash but here’s my question; will our stone be there or, Heaven forbid, will it “be erased from among them” – as Yaakov told Yoseph?
Today’s temptation is a lot more than spending an hour with an Egyptian woman. That is a horrific sin -and one which must be avoided - but the act that will erase us from the Jewish future is far greater than that. Jewish history is being written in Israel and here is where the “stones” are being made. It is in Israel where one fights for the nation. It is in Israel where one builds the land and most importantly of all, it is in Israel; not Lakewood, Monsey or Queens where we come close to HaShem and bring His Torah to life. Israel is where we live Shmittah, not just learn about it. Eretz Yisrael is where we are the “ba’al ha’bayis” and not living by the grace of the goyim. Israel is where our nation thrives, plants, grows, and gets ready for the future.
Moving to Israel today is not just a good idea… its to make sure – as Yaakov told Yoseph that, “you are among them (i.e., the Jewish Nation)” Israel is the place of the Jewish future, yet it will take more than simply looking at Yaakov’s face to make it happen. You need to listen to him. He was telling – no, begging – Yoseph to gain control of his temptation because he knew that the disgraceful act would cause his name to be erased forever.
What is Yaakov saying now? Listen closely and you’ll hear him; “My dearest children, stop building Jewish communities outside the land. Stop thinking that a trip every few years is enough. The Jewish nation needs you in Israel permanently. Move there with your family. Build a home, support the schools, grow the economy, plant some trees and defend the land.”
Listen to Yaakov Avinu – he is talking to you; “Your brothers are destined to be inscribed upon the stones of the ephod, and you are among them. Do you want your name to be erased from among them?”
Yoseph heard the message, loud and clear, and acted accordingly. You can do the same.