In describing one instance in which Potiphar’s wife tempted Yosef into having relations with her, the Torah (Bereishit 39:11) says, “Vayhi KeHayom HaZeh VaYavo HaBaitah Laasot Melachto,” “And it was like on this day and he came home to do Melachto.”
Rashi cites a dispute (Sotah 36b) between Rav and Shemuel regarding the meaning of the word Melachto. One says that it means he came to do his actual household work for Potiphar, while the other maintains that it means he came with a mindset to have relations with Potiphar’s wife, a mindset which was shattered when he saw a vision of his father’s countenance. There is much discussion regarding whether the Gemara’s comment that Yosef saw a vision of his father’s face should be interpreted literally, metaphorically, or somewhere in between.
Representing the middle approach, the Yefei To’ar explains that Yosef saw the reflection of his own face, which was extremely similar to that of his father (see Rashi to Bereishit 37:3 s.v. Ben Zekunim). Looking at his reflection and noticing its similarity to Yaakov’s reminded Yosef of the high spiritual level at which his father led his life. This realization gave Yosef the strength to restrain himself, and he ran out of the house to escape the situation.
The Yalkutei Reuveni (quoted in Maayanah Shel Torah) explains the Gemara in a metaphorical manner. He quotes the Pasuk (Bereishit 39:2) “Vayhi Hashem Et Yosef,” “Hashem was with Yosef.” This means, according to the Yalkutei Reuveni, that Yosef fulfilled the idea of “Shiviti Hashem LeNegdi Tamid,” “I constantly have Hashem opposite me.” The Kabbalists explain this Pasuk to mean that a person should constantly view the picture of Hashem’s name in their mind’s eye in order to bolster his Yirat Hashem and help him avoid sin. When the Pasuk says that Yosef saw his father, it means that he saw Hashem’s name, as he always did. By keeping Hashem in his thoughts, he was able to resist the advances of Potiphar’s wife. According to the Yalkutei Reuvenei, the reason why the Gemara records that Yosef saw “his father’s face” and not “Hashem’s name” is because the Gematria (numerical value) of “ Yosef” plus the Gematria of “Hashem” equals the Gematria of “Yaakov,” or, as the Gemara puts it, his father. Another reason why the Gemara used “his father” to refer to Hashem is because Hashem is considered our Heavenly Father. When Yosef saw Hashem, his “Father,” he ran out of the house to escape from Poitphar’s wife.
The Tzafnat Paneiach explains the Gemara in a literal manner. He quotes the Midrash, which comments on Yaakov’s exclamation,(Bereishit 37:33), “Tarof Taraf Yosef,” “Yosef must have surely been torn up.” The Midrash explains that Yaakov unwittingly predicted that Yosef would somehow be torn up in the future. The Tzafnat Paneiach goes on to quote a later Pasuk (Bereishit 37:35), “Ki Eireid El Beni Aveil Sheola,” “Because I will descend to Sheol in mourning for my son.” He explains the word Sheol to mean Gehennom, and thus Yaakov fulfilled his prophecy (from 37:33) and his promise (from 37:35) when he appeared to Yosef in Gehennom to rescue him from the clutches of sin and the Yeitzer HaRa.
No matter which approach is taken, Yosef was able to strengthen himself and avoid sin. Potiphar’s wife attempted time and time again to seduce Yosef and make him commit the grave sin of adultery. However, Yosef was able to overcome her temptations many, many times. We all should see Yosef as a role model who overcame an extremely powerful Yeitzer HaRa. When we are in a dire and tempting situation, we should remember Yosef to ensure that we don’t fall into the Yeitzer HaRa’s tempting traps.