March 4, 2024
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Our environment poses a constant challenge to our morality, specifically regarding the core Jewish values of modesty and sanctity in the intimate realm. We are surrounded by what appears to be an ever-intensifying emphasis on the seductive and a continuous erosion of boundaries. This is not new for the Jewish people and was in fact a core element of the Chanukah story where many sources identify the decree of the Greeks to violate young brides, “tiba’el l’hegemon t’chilah” (“Prima Nocta”), as the trigger to the revolt of the Chashmonaim.

The Torah (Vayikra 18:3) refers to such immoral behavior as maaseh Eretz Mitzrayim, characteristic of the Egyptians. During our first encounter with Egypt, Sarah was taken to be with Pharaoh on account of her beauty. And in this week’s parsha, Yosef faces the very same challenge from the wife of Potiphar. While Sarah was subject to force and compulsion, Yosef had to deal with seduction and temptation.

Yosef withstood the challenge, earning for himself the title Yosef Hatzadik, Yosef the Righteous. He resisted the challenge by drawing on three distinct sources of moral strength: First, his refusal to betray the trust placed in him by Potiphar, as he said (Bereishis 39:9): “There is no one who wields no more authority in this house than I, and he has withheld nothing from me except you, since you are his wife.” Second, as he went on to note, his faithfulness to God’s word: “How then could I do this most wicked thing and sin before God?” And third, his commitment to the values he had seen at home, symbolized by the image of his father that appeared to him in the window and inspired him to resist temptation (Sotah 36b).

It was this kind of moral strength, drawing on faithfulness to each other, to God and to our inherited values, that would set the tone for the Jewish people’s exile in Egypt and beyond, enabling us to resist the enticements of our environment and remain faithful to our values. While we are no longer in Egypt and the Greeks are long gone as a force to be reckoned with, the moral challenges they posed continue to confront us. Like Yosef and the Chashmonaim, we will overcome this challenge by strengthening our commitments to interpersonal trust, God’s word, and loyalty to tradition.


Rabbi Moshe Hauer is executive vice president of the Orthodox Union (OU), the nation’s largest Orthodox Jewish umbrella organization.

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