The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.
“Great is peace,” said Rabbi Simeon ben Gamliel, “for even the ancestors resorted to a fabrication in order to make peace between Joseph and themselves” (Genesis Rabbah 100:8). Praise and rabbinic sanction for speaking falsely? How can it be?
Here at the end of Genesis, the sons of Jacob appear to have reestablished familial harmony. But with their father’s passing, the brothers fear Joseph’s revenge for their earlier, murderous intentions. And so, they tell a lie.
“They brought a charge to Joseph, saying, “your father left this charge before his death, saying, ‘Thus shall you say to Joseph: please I beg of you, forgive the transgression of your brothers and their sin, though they inflicted harm upon you …’” (Genesis 50:16-17). They weep, and in a scene of extraordinary tenderness, Joseph extends absolute grace to his once wayward kin. “He comforted them, and spoke straight to their heart” (50:21).
Since the Torah has no record of Jacob saying anything of the sort, the “charge” is read as an acceptable contrivance by the brothers. In a tradition that places such a high value on truth, this is puzzling indeed.
“Keep far from falsehood!” exhorts Exodus 23:7. “Truth is the seal of the Holy One!” we read in the Talmud (Shabbat 55a). And the prophet Zephaniah commands, “The remnant of Israel shall not do iniquity, nor speak lies, neither shall a deceitful tongue be found in their mouth” (Zephaniah 3:13).
In the spirit of Rabbi Simeon, Rav Ilai also said, “a person may tell a white lie for the sake of peace” (Yevamot 65b). But not only a person, as we learned back in Genesis 18. There, God bends the truth for shalom bayit, peace in the home, when He reframes Sarah’s laughter about the prospect that she could have a child with Abraham. She wonders: “Will I have pleasure with my husband so old?” (Genesis 18:12). In the very next verse, God asks Abraham, “Why is Sarah laughing, thinking ‘Am I really going to bear a child when I am so old?” In the deliberate misquote, God preserves Abraham’s dignity and calls out Sarah for her lack of faith in one masterful stroke.
These two occasions of intentional obfuscation — one Divine, one earthly — illustrate with profound artistry the capital “T” Truth that life isn’t a series of clear-cut, all-or-nothing situations.
Relationships require consideration of others and preservation of the self. Nuance, finesse and maybe even a little subterfuge may be necessary to preserve a delicate balance of peaceful coexistence.
In another lifetime, I sat with college friends at a late-night coffeehouse. The question arose: Is it ever permissible to tell a lie?
One beloved friend insisted it was never acceptable — truth must be told no matter the consequences. Despite my boundless admiration for her, I disagreed, especially regarding a person’s feelings, and one’s own privacy.
I discovered much later that the Talmud had beaten me soundly to the punch. Besides the famous dispute between Hillel and Shammai regarding whether a bride should be praised for her beauty irrespective of the “truth” (Hillel said yes, Shammai said no), tractate Bava Metzia 23b-24a goes even further. There, the rabbis teach that a righteous person never lies except in three instances — “tractate, purya and hospitality.” “Tractate” suggests that a modest scholar may claim unfamiliarity with a text so as not to boast of his learning.
Purya is disputed. Rashi translates it as “bed,” meaning that a scholar may bend the truth if questioned about his intimate married life. Later commentators, scandalized that such a question could ever be asked, read purya as “Purim,” allowing a scholar to fib about how much alcohol he had imbibed on the holiday. (I’m with Rashi on this one, because we have records of students who did look, sometimes in a very intrusive way, to their rabbis for guidance in the bedroom.)
“Hospitality” permits a pious person to misrepresent the reception she has been given, either to embellish the truth to protect the host’s feelings if the offerings were a little “less than” or to scale back the truth if a review that is “too glowing” would overwhelm the host’s capacities!
I’m often asked how “true” I hold the stories of the Tanakh to be.
I believe they are based on real people, about whom wonderful stories were woven, or on real events, personalized by marvelous characters to whom we can relate. Hopefully, in many cases it’s both.
In an era where truth is frighteningly under siege, I am solidly convinced of the great “Truths” that Judaism teaches and cling to the “self-evident truths” of the Torah and our traditions more than ever.
As Genesis concludes, Joseph dies and is embalmed in a coffin in Egypt, where the Israelites will be similarly entombed during the long, dark night of bondage and suffering that is coming. Because they banded together, even with a white lie paving the way, they could meet the painful times ahead as one family.
As the new secular year dawns (and, please, may it be better than the last), may we overcome the terrible fissures of our time, bend a little for one another and face whatever may be coming next as one people and one country, united for a common, marvelous cause of shalom