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    What made him a tzaddik – Vayyeshev

    Joseph fleeing Potiphar's wife, by Philipp Veit c.1816

    Jewish tradition bestowed a great accolade upon Joseph. It called him Yosef HaTzaddik – Joseph the Righteous.

    Why this honour came his way has nothing to do with his ability to interpret dreams or the fact that years later he gave his family a new lease of life when he settled them in Egypt.

    The incident that evoked the title was his refusal to be tempted by the wife of Potiphar; he refused and said, “How can I do such a wicked thing and sin against God?” (Gen. 39:8-9).

    One might think that succumbing to the woman’s wishes would have been a sin against her husband Potiphar, and that God did not come into it.

    In truth, both she and Joseph would have committed a sin against Potiphar, and Joseph recognised this even if the woman did not.

    But what Joseph’s words tell us is that human conscience is answerable to God, not only to earthly beings or human considerations. Commit a sin against a human being and you also betray God who made you and is the ultimate, objective judge of right and wrong.

    The 20th century proves this principle. So many regimes have followed the maxim, “God is dead – therefore everything is allowed”.

    But if God is toppled from his throne, there is no judge to judge the judges, no ruler to overrule the rulers. There is no eternal standard of right and wrong; they become purely matters of opinion, and no-one is safe any more.

    Does that mean that an atheist or agnostic cannot be ethical? Not at all, but they are living on the ethical capital of previous generations and sooner or later it will be used up.

    Belief in God, however, with its insistence on truth, justice and peace constantly reminds us of ethical ideals, gives them authority and objectivity, and warns us that whatever we do there will be an account and reckoning.

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