Judaism has always maintained that a strong family life is the most important ingredient to create and sustain a person of character and integrity. The Torah spends an entire book detailing the family life of our founders so we can learn from their examples and, at times, even learn from their mistakes. If we are fortunate, the lessons learned from our upbringing are so strong that they shape and guide us throughout our life. There is no better example of this than that of Yosef.
Yosef left home under the most tragic of circumstances, never to return, at the tender age of 17. Despite being sold into captivity, he so impressed his master that he was soon running the household of a prominent Egyptian officer. No doubt, he tried to forget the painful memories of the cruel treatment he received at the hands of his brothers; he made no effort to contact his aging father, a sure sign that he had every intention of starting a fresh life in his new land. But even in his attempt to forget the past, the moral traits instilled in him at home thankfully remained a part of him. He was thus able to reject the sexual advances of his master’s wife. Our Sages tell us that Yosef was willing and perhaps even eager to succumb, coming home early to do “his work”. What prevented him from doing so? Our Sages teach us that it was the image of his father that appeared to him at that moment. The vividness of the image, and the voice of morality that it projected, allowed Yosef to retain his place amongst the B’nei Yisroel.
Yosef did, however, have to pay the price for his moment of temptation. Falsely accused of sexual harassment, Yosef was imprisoned. Through a “lucky break”, Yosef was given the opportunity to act as a “sleep therapist” for Pharaoh, an opportunity he used to full advantage. Pharaoh was so impressed by his recommendations that he immediately appointed him Viceroy and married him to Poti-Phera, a scion of a prominent family and apparently the daughter of his former master, with whom he had two children. Yet the Torah deviates from its norm by not mentioning the birth of the children at this point; instead, it first tells us that there were seven years of plenty and that Yosef was accumulating the excess food in preparation for the eventual downturn in the economy. Only then, in the midst of Yosef’s busy schedule, are we told of the birth of his children.
The Torah is hinting at a very important message. Yes, Yosef was literally saving the world; but his greatness lay in the fact that despite his busy schedule, he found time to properly raise his children. The most impressive achievement of Yosef was not that his economic policies averted a looming catastrophe. It was that he was the father of Ephraim and Menashe, the first Jewish children born and successfully raised in a foreign environment, the first Jews to have actual contact with their grandfather and the only grandchildren of Yaakov who merited inclusion as members of the twelve tribes. No matter how great the person, no matter how important his task, it is the family that must come first. It is no wonder that Jewish parents have, for thousands of years, been blessing their children, praying that they be like Ephraim and Menashe.
The importance of “family first” is a difficult one for many of us as we struggle to balance our many tasks; often, we have to spend less time with our family just to make ends meet. This is especially true of people involved in crucial work that benefits society as a whole, such as doctors, teachers, or government officials. Working for the greater good is important, and fulfills a tremendous mitzvah, but we must realize that our greatest task is assuring the proper values and role models are passed on to the next generation. Like Yosef, we must realize that, while we must do our part in world affairs, ultimately it is “not by my own power—but G-d may provide an answer” (41:16). We may not be able to solve all the world’s problems, but we can try to ensure that family comes first.