“Truth or Consequences”
Rabbi Gary J. Robuck
North Shore Temple Emanuel
Chatswood, New South Wales
This Shabbat, congregations around our region will conclude the reading of Sefer B’reisheet. When we first began, God was busy attending to the creation of the world. The Midrash provides an account of a heated discussion that ensued among the ministering angels. One, representing the middah (the attribute of love) was immediately in favour of humanity’s creation saying, “Let him be created, because he will perform acts of love.” The other, however, truth was his name, said: “let him not be created, because all of him will be falsehood.” Nu-what is the Divine Judge, working to a tight schedule, to do under these circumstances? After listening intently to the arguments both pro and con, The Judge did something remarkable: God threw truth (emet) to the ground.
Should this implicate God or suggest to us that the Creator of the Universe spurns truth? Hardly. What it teaches us is that truth, while of great importance, is not an absolute value. What it says is that truth must at times be tempered by rachmanut (mercy) and made subordinate to other values like shalom bayit (domestic peace and harmony), for example.
I was made to think about the Midrash when reading this week’s parsha, Vayechi. There, you may recall, Joseph’s brothers bring to him what they say is a death-bed message from their deceased father, Jacob. “So you shall say to Joseph, ‘Forgive, I urge you, the offense and guilt of your brothers who treated you so harshly…’ please forgive the offense of the servants of the God of your father.” (Hebrew/English 50:16-17)
The significance of this “message” is not lost on our commentators. First of all they contend there is no account whatsoever of Jacob having said such a thing. Moreover, is it not more likely that such a message would have been communicated directly to Joseph? Rashi says what most of us may already be suspecting already: “The brothers deviated from the truth for the sake of peace (read, they lied); for Jacob had given no such command, since Joseph was not suspect by him of committing any injury to them”.
You may interested to know why the brothers were so nervous now that Jacob had died; notwithstanding the fact that Joseph had never acted against them even having been thrown into a pit and sold off into slavery.
The answers given are colourful. The Midrash Tanchuma suggests that Joseph, on the way home from his father’s burial in Hebron took a moment to look into the pit into which he had been thrown so many years earlier. This caused the brothers to fear that he may be harbouring thoughts of revenge (an idea popularized in much later movies where we hear, “revenge is better served cold”). The Midrash also offers us this: “while his father was still alive, Joseph used to welcome his brothers at his table and dine with them out of respect for Jacob (but) right after Jacob’s death he no longer received them in this way. The brothers took these both as signs that old grudges were reviving…”
That the brothers lied, saying the message was from their father is, therefore, not really in question. They lied, appealing to Joseph’s love for his father, because they were anxious to hedge their bets, to save their skins just in case Joseph, now that his father was dead, did try to take justice into his own hands.
It is not the first time that our leading players in Torah have played with the truth a little bit. Abraham called Sarah his sister, Lavan, of course, the great deceiver, pulled a fast one or two on Jacob, Jacob lied to Esau, Rachel stole a few idols, Sarah claimed she didn’t laugh but did…we could go on. But what are we, as Jewish adults wanting to construct lives filled with integrity, to think of it all?
A very wonderful rabbi, Bernard Berzon, of congregation Ahavath Israel in Brooklyn, NY, citing Yevamot 65b taught: mutar le’adam leshanot bidvar ha’shalom…that it is “permissible for a person deviate from the truth on account of peace”. Rabbi Berzon goes on: “the halacha has always dealt with particular life situations. Truth, the backbone and foundation- stone of society has to give way when it threatens peace, or when it does violence to the ideals of chessed and rachamim, kindness and compassion. (So) while it is wrong to tell an outright lie, there are circumstances when telling the absolute truth is an act of cruelty and malice.”
Indeed, this portion of the Torah would have each of think again about what it means to be fully honest; to consider anew those occasions when one must tell it like it is and when, for the sake of shalom it is necessary to either say nothing or to couch our words in such a way that no one is badly hurt even if what we say is true. Doing so, I am confident, will smooth the way at home, in the workplace and in all our endeavours snuffing out the fires of jealousy and enmity that may otherwise divide us.