Did a little white lie save the Jewish people?


This week’s Torah portion is Vayechi, Genesis 47:28-50:26.

As the book of Genesis comes to a close, we learn that before Jacob dies after dwelling in Egypt for 17 years, he gives a poetic, individualized ethical testament to each of his sons. In a great funeral procession, Joseph, his brothers, and Pharaoh’s court bring Jacob’s body to Machpelah in the land of Israel to be buried. At the end of the parsha, Joseph also dies after exacting a promise to bring his remains to the land of Israel.

Vayechi marks the end of the story of the Jews as a family or clan. The book of Genesis as a whole has an explicit focus on familial rivalry. We see it vividly between Cain and Abel and again among Noah’s sons. We see the inability of family members to live side by side when Abraham and Lot are forced to dwell apart. The rivalry between Jacob and Esau (fomented by their parents, no less) leads to death threats by Esau and to long years of exile for Jacob. The story of the fight for familial love — again with a background of parental favoritism — reaches an apex with the story of Joseph and his brothers.

There are hinted rivalries as well (between Rachel and Leah, between Isaac and Ishmael) about which the text is less specific, but which are sources for midrash by the Sages. Most of these rivalries result in what we might call a “cold peace.” The Joseph story, however, is different, as we see sibling rivalry overcome by repentance, or teshuvah.


And yet, we see a potential for continued uncertainty when the brothers, fearful that Joseph will seek revenge after Jacob’s death, send Joseph a message, saying “Before his death your father left us this instruction: Say to Joseph, ‘Forgive, I urge you, the offense and guilt of your brothers’” (Genesis 50:16).

As Rashi notes, Jacob never gave such a command to his children, at least not in our received text. He suggests that the brothers lied for the sake of shalom bayit, or peace of the house.

Rabbi Simeon ben Gamliel taught, “Great is peace, for even the tribal ancestors resorted to a fabrication in order to make peace between Joseph and themselves” (Gen. Rabbah 100:8).

It has become a Jewish value to tell a minor falsehood for the sake of peace. The issue of whether it is ever appropriate to lie is one which my Shoresh Hebrew High School students find particularly fascinating. They are torn, for example, between Hillel’s advice to call all brides beautiful (whether they are or not), and Shamai’s instruction to refrain from comment on the beauty of a bride if it is lacking.

In recent weeks, we have heard many in the political realm explain that facts are not always facts, and that truth is more elusive than we might believe. It is arguable that the sons of Israel were finally fully reconciled because of a white lie. Is this the way forward for modern Jews, who are divided along so many religious and political lines, in Israel and in the Diaspora? Is it the way forward for modern Americans?

Questions for discussion

Why do you think the first book of the Bible focuses so often on family problems?

Do you think it is ever OK to tell a white lie? If yes, when and under what circumstances?

What steps would you suggest to try to reach out to fellow Jews, in Israel or in the Diaspora, to enhance the acceptance of each other?

Gary Simms is a member of the faculty of Shoresh Hebrew High School and served as executive director at Reform, Conservative and Orthodox congregations in the Washington area.

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