Temptation makes us ache with desire, whether it is for bad food, too much drink or great sex (with the wrong person). Right now, the nights are getting long, we are about to start burning some Chanukah candles, and today’s conversation is specifically about overcoming passion when it’s misdirected. Sexual attraction is natural and healthy but it can prove to be highly destructive when acted upon with the wrong person. Most people are tempted at some point or other - whether it is with a work colleague, professor or best friend’s ex - but the biggest question is how to beat temptation. Our Kosher Sutra centres on the story of Joseph who has become the servant of the overlord Potiphar. Joseph is being regularly propositioned by Potiphar’s wife who tries to seduce him in every way known to womankind. She’s one dangerous lady when her desires aren’t fulfilled.
A theory of yoga is that it is all about the movement of energy inside the body; what the Vedic writings referred to as ‘prana’. This is often mistranslated as breath, but the idea is that we can harness this pranic energy through breath and movement, and channel this lifeforce. The closest Hebrew translation is ‘Ruach’ or ‘Neshama’. Tantric yoga is about focusing this energy inwards, rather than releasing it to the world, and becoming stronger and more powerful as a result.
We are told that Joseph is ‘handsome of form and handsome of appearance’ (Genesis 39:6) and even though the mistress asks him to lie in bed beside her (even without touching according to Rashi), he still refuses. Just A leads to B leads to C, it’s as if he knew what could happen, so he stopped himself before D led to E led to F.
The rabbis provided more tales of the Joseph’s erotic temptations. One midrash says that she changed her clothes three times every day so that she’d grab Joseph’s eye* while another one goes even further.
Apparently she invited around all of her Egyptian girlfriends, gave them all a citrus fruit to cut up and enjoy and then asked Joseph to parade in front of them. He was so attractive that they all cut their hands, which formed small sensual bleeding scars.** Oy. Literature students, now’s your chance to start reading into the imagery; go wild and send in your answers on a postcard (within a discreet brown envelope).
According to the text, Potiphar’s wife attempted to seduce Joseph every single day. She grabbed his clothes. She teased him. The commentator Rashi suggests that Joseph was at fault for curling his hair and preening himself when he should have been empathising for his father who thought Joseph was dead, hence being tested with this raunchy wench. I say, if your hair isn’t naturally curly then enjoy au naturelle, but that’s beside the point. Another midrash says that Joseph saw his father’s face outside the window which is how he resisted her. It’s entirely possible he summoned this image himself as a way of keeping himself cool – it was the meditational equivalent of a cold shower. Either way, he found the strength to say ‘no’. That’s impressive.
The sages famously ask ‘Who is strong?’, and the famous reply is that it is the person ‘who can control his desire’*. This is true whether your desire is for unhealthy food, unhealthy sex or unhealthy hair treatments. True strength comes from inside, and this produces the ability to keep going through difficult situations through sheer force of will. Another way of translating the Hebrew is ‘Who is a [true] warrior? The person who is in full command of their passions’.
Today’s posture is WARRIOR 2.
1. Stand with your left heel at the back of your mat, your toes at a 45-degree angle to pointing outwards.
2. Step your right foot to the front of the mat, position your right knee above your right ankle.
3. Engage both legs, drawing up on your left quadriceps and spread your hands perpendicular to the floor.
4. Hold for 15 breaths on each side….or until your muscles are shaking – that’s when your real power kicks in.
The longer you hold the position the more temptation there is to relax and drop out of the pose. But try holding it for longer this time, draw your energy inwards, overcome the temptation to release and feel your strength rising. Ensure that your back leg stays straight, your front knee is bent over your ankle, your breathing stays regular, your arms are strong and that your face is relaxed.
When we truly apply this Kosher Sutra – being able to summon our strength to say ‘no’ when faced with a situation, we experience true strength and can achieve almost anything. Chanukah is about a story of warriors who focused their energy on a spiritual battle, to keep the flames burning rather than to take the easy option of succumbing to the hedonistic Hellenistic culture. Stand strong in your pose and burn brightly.
Be strong and powerful.