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, the Torah recounts the fear the brothers had of Joseph that 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 they sent this message to Joseph, “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 wish 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 and support 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 deeds of his sons in their selling of Joseph into slavery. Furthermore, if Jacob had known all along about the incident, why would he not make that request of forgiveness directly to Joseph? Why go through the brothers? Indeed at the beginning of this week’s parsha, the Torah narrates Jacob’s final words to Joseph that he not be buried in Egypt. There is no mention during this dialogue that Joseph should forgive his brothers.
And yet, despite the transparency of this charade Joseph readily reacts in a most noble manner:
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 the present result – 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 set aside for Shalom – Peace. It goes without saying that Judaism values Truth as one of the highest traits and ideals. 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 Truth for a greater good, and that is Peace. The brother’s intention clearly was because they felt they were at risk, but it was also for the sake of family peace and unity.
An even greater expression that Peace trumps Truth in this exchange is in Joseph’s reaction. Joseph was not an idiot and most likely knows that this alleged wish of their dying father was bogus. But he doesn’t let on. He appreciates the brother’s effort and totally reassures his brothers that there is nothing more important than all of them getting along together as one family. 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 the present result – to keep a great people alive. Joseph doesn’t call them out on their charade and does his own little dance-of-pretend by not raising any eyebrows at their claim, nor giving any indication with so much as a sly smile that he sees through their ruse.
That Truth should be set aside for Peace at certain times and instances 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 and destroy everything and everyone in the wake of their personal holy battle. “It’s the principle of the thing!” or “I am a brutally honest person” are often the rallying cries. Brutal indeed as it ruins all sorts of relationships. It’s bad enough when the instigating party may in fact be right and indeed have Truth on their side, it’s even more tragic when it’s 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. We have to recognize when we are called upon to make compromises for the greater good, as Joseph did, and act accordingly. We have to accept the simple fact that we cannot always be 100% right, even when we are 100% right.
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 lies
Tell me sweet little lies