The story of Yosef in the house of Potiphar and his interaction with Potiphar’s wife can teach us a great deal about how we should strive to live our lives as Jews. Potiphar’s wife tries to seduce Yosef, and Yosef responds that he will not succumb to temptation on two accounts: “there is no one greater in this house than I, and Potiphar has denied me nothing but you (since you are his wife); how then can I perpetrate this great evil. And I would have sinned against God.”
I admit that my punctuation of the last few words is debatable. One could argue that Yosef’s main concern was that committing adultery is a sin against God. However I see within Yosef’s words the appropriate approach to gauging the correctness of our actions. First of all, Yosef considers the human impact of his actions and understands that committing adultery would be a sin against Potiphar, not only because she is his wife, but also because of the trust that Potiphar had placed in Yosef. Adultery would be a supreme violation of that trust. Secondly, and just as important, even if Yosef had no feelings of respect and gratitude towards Potiphar, and even if he resented Potiphar and really wanted to hurt him, Yosef would not succumb to temptation because it would be a sin against God.
Yosef models for us the considerations that we are supposed to have when considering our course of action. If our actions would hurt someone else, then even if we could rationalize those actions as not being a technical violation of halacha, it would still be wrong. And even if an action does not hurt anyone, we still must evaluate whether that activity is allowed according to Halacha, the code by which we are supposed to live our lives.
I believe that this is what sets Yosef apart and the reason why he is called “Ivri” on multiple occasions in Parshat Vayeshev. Yosef sets himself apart by holding himself to two high standards: one standard is the Halacha test. The other standard is the “mensch test”. Even if something could be construed as permissible based on the Halacha test, if we are to emulate Yosef Hatzaddik then we will avoid any activity that doesn’t pass the mensch test
Let us learn the lessons of Yosef HaIvri well. Torah is distorted when it is used to justify improper behavior towards others, Jew or non-Jew. A person who claims to be Torah observant yet hurts others is a hypocrite. Let us never allow there to be daylight between being Torah observant and being a mensch.