The Purple Sheet
Parshat VaYechi– January 13 & 17 2017
You Can’t Handle the Truth!
In this week’s Torah portion there is a little known epilogue to the story of Joseph and his brothers. After father Jacob dies and is buried in an elaborate funeral in Canaan (Israel), the Torah recounts the fear that the brothers had of Joseph that now arose in their heart after their father’s demise.
Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead and they said, “Perhaps Joseph still harbors hatred towards us and will return to us the evil that we did against him.” So Joseph was told, “Your father gave orders before his death as follows: ‘Tell Joseph to please bear the offense of your brothers and their sin, for they have done you wrong.'”
The brothers worried that Joseph had quietly kept his hatred of them all this time while dad was alive, and now that Jacob had passed, Joseph would finally exact his revenge. Their concern over this possibility was so great that they felt compelled to fabricate a story, claiming that their father’s dying request was that Joseph should forgive them for selling him into slavery. Joseph readily does and reiterates to them that it has all worked out for the best inasmuch as he can now sustain them in the land of Egypt.
According to Jewish tradition, as expressed in the Midrash, Jacob had made no such request before he passed on. In fact there is no indication that Jacob even ever knew of the terrible behavior and misdeeds of his sons in their treatment of Joseph. Furthermore, if Jacob had indeed known about the incident, why would he not make that request of forgiveness directly to Joseph; why go through the brothers? And yet despite the transparency of this charade Joseph readily reacts in a most noble way:
Joseph wept when they spoke to him… (and) said to them, “Don’t be afraid, for am I instead of God? Indeed, you intended evil against me, (but) God designed it for good, in order to bring about what is at present – to keep a great people alive. So now do not fear. I will sustain you and your small children.” And he comforted them and spoke to their hearts.
This is one of the examples in the Torah where Truth is put aside for Shalom – Peace. There is no doubt that Judaism gives tremendous weight to the importance of Truth. Twice a day when we recite the three paragraphs of the Shema, we end off by declaring “The Lord your God is Truth” and indeed the Talmud says that God’s seal is Emet /Truth. Nevertheless there are times when we are willing to forego this essential quality for a greater good, and that is Peace. The brothers intention was to bend the truth in this instance for the sake of family unity (in addition to saving their hides I am sure as well).
But an even greater expression that plays out of this principle is the reaction by Joseph who goes along with it. Joseph was not an idiot and most likely knows that the alleged wish of their dying father was bogus, but he does not let on, appreciates their efforts and totally reassures his brothers that there is nothing more important than all of them getting along together as one family. Joseph does not call them out on their charade and does his own little dance of pretend by not raising any eyebrows at their claim or giving any indication that he sees through their ruse.
That Peace should trump Truth is crucial for parties to be able to live with one another, be they husband and wife, siblings, co-workers, co-religionists or any relationship in our daily lives. Too often people wrap themselves in the mantle of glorious righteousness, fight for it at all costs (“It’s the principle of the thing!” is usually the rallying cry.) and eventually destroy everything in the wake of their battle. And this occurs even when the instigating party may in fact be right and correct and indeed have Truth on their side. It is even more tragic and sad when it is false righteousness that propels the destruction.
Truth is always important, but often we have to take a step back, see the larger picture, and go along with some artificial scenarios for the greater good of the marriage, family, business or nation, as the case may be and as Joseph did. We cannot always be 100% right, even when we are 100% right, but need to make the necessary compromises for the greater good.
To live in Truth is great; to live in Peace is even greater.
If I could turn the page in time
Then I’d rearrange just a day or two
Close my, close my, close my eyes
But I couldn’t find a way
So I’ll settle for one day to believe in you
Tell me, tell me, tell me lies
Tell me sweet little lies