Vayechi: Truth and Peace

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayechi

This week we conclude the book of Bereshit/Genesis: the grand journey of Yaakov’s life is concluded with
his final return to the Land of Israel, where he is buried by his sons
in the cave purchased by his grandfather Avraham. After Yosef and his
brothers return to Egypt, the brothers are quite understandably
concerned that Yosef may finally exact revenge for their violence
against him when they were younger:

“Now Yosef’s brothers saw that their father had died, and they said,
‘Perhaps Yosef will hate us and return to us all the evil that we did
to him.’ So they commanded [messengers to go] to Yosef , to say, ‘Your
father commanded [us] before his death, saying, ‘So shall you say to
Yosef : please, forgive now your brothers’ transgression and their
sin, for they did evil to you. Now please forgive the transgression of
the servants of the God of your father.’ ‘ Yosef wept when they spoke
to him. ” (Bereshit/Genesis 50:15-17)

This passage has inspired veritable rivers of commentary, because of a
neon-bright textual problem: there is no record in the Torah of Yaakov
saying what the brothers reported. Thus, Rashi (basing himself on
older sources) makes the obvious conclusion: the brothers lied about
their father’s putative plea so that there would be peace in the family.

That’s the bad news. The good news is, well, it seems to have worked,
and in fact, most commentators don’t have a problem with this
particular instance of lying, precisely because it leads to an
ethically desirable result: peace between the brothers. In general,
the Torah condemns lying and falsehood, as in, for example:

“You shall not bear false witness” (Shmot/Exodus 20:13)

“Keep far from a false matter” (Shmot 23:7)

“Neither shall you deal falsely nor lie to one another”
(Vayikra/Leviticus 19:11)

One could argue that these mitzvot have a juridical context- that is,
witnessing and legal testimony- but it’s still clear that our system
of religious ethics has truth-telling and integrity as a core value.
Still, the point that Rashi and others make is that truth in itself is
not the ultimate value; peace and human dignity may in certain
instances be a higher value. This makes sense when one considers the
underlying reason that truth is a value in the first place: when
people can’t trust each other, whether in the marketplace or the
courtroom or anywhere else, they cannot build bonds of intimacy,
caring, and justice.

Detailed discussions of these principles can be found in the links
below, but for today, it’s enough to point out that refraining from
lies is a clear principle of Jewish ethics and practice. However, in
certain extraordinary circumstances, it <may> be permissible to
“fudge” the truth or even lie in order to achieve peace,
reconciliation, or human dignity. “Shalom” is understood to be one of
the names of God in the Jewish tradition, and thus we do not condemn
Yosef’s brothers for bending the truth for the sake of life and peace.

Shabbat Shalom,


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