The full truth and nothing but the truth

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By Rabbi Daniel Braune-Friedman
Special to WJW

This week’s Torah portion is Vayigash, Genesis 44:18 – 47:27.


Rabbis work hard to plan classes, write sermons and create meaningful prayer experiences. An important part of this process is getting feedback. It can be hard to get honest feedback from congregants. People are protective of the rabbi. I am lucky. When I speak to my congregants on the Charles E. Smith Life Communities campus, they do not hold back. If something is working, I hear it right away: “I love this rabbi!” If I am not connecting, I might hear, “I don’t know what he’s talking about.”

This has been hard to get used to over my eight years in elder care, but now I really do appreciate it. However, in most of our travels, we do not get a full picture of what someone is thinking. We are polite, we are scared and we are sensitive to offending someone else. Perhaps this serves us well.

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The dynamic of the full truth has been discussed in stories, fables and television episodes. If the full truth is really revealed, people get hurt. So instead we lean heavily on not telling the truth about others.

One of the popular songs that is played at Jewish weddings is called “Keitzad merakdin lifnei ha-kalah.” It comes from a question asked in the Gemara, Ketubot 17: “How does one dance before the bride?”


Beit Hillel answers the question by suggesting each person to say, “Kalah na’ah va-hasudah — A fair and attractive bride.” Beit Shammai disagrees, arguing that doing so would be lying — forbidden by the Torah (Shemot 23:7) with the statement, “Mi-devar sheker tirhak — stay far away from falsehood,” for not every kallah is na’ah va-hasudah. What should be said is, “kallah kemot she-he­ – as she is.”
I believe Joseph also struggled with saying the full truth in this week’s parshah. After many years of not seeing his son, Jacob says to Joseph, “I can die now that I have seen your face, that you are still alive.” Then Joseph said to his brothers and his father’s household, “I will go up and tell the news to Pharoah, and say to him, ‘My brothers and my father’s household, who were in the land of Canaan, have come to me’” (Genesis 46:30-31).

This is a strange reaction. Jacob evokes a dramatic celebration of reunification and Joseph essentially ignores him. He turns to his brothers instead of facing his father. Joseph’s emotions overcame him. He could not be angry with Jacob, and Jacob did not sell him. But Jacob also did not search for his son. Or, perhaps the swelling of a positive emotion was simply too great for Joseph to handle. Perhaps he could not be completely demonstrative, given his elevated status in Egypt.

Joseph did not say his truth. It seems that Joseph never said his truth. He only speaks to Jacob once again, and he does not discuss the past, only the future. When his brothers came to him, Joseph hid his face to take revenge on them. Perhaps Joseph was more careful with father. He did not even want to bring up the subject.

We all have done this, I know I have. Holding back in order to protect the other. And also to protect ourselves, to protect people’s perception of us. But, of course, this gets in the way of growth, of forgiveness and moving on. Instead of holding back, let us find ways to address the problems we find in others to help them, and to help ourselves. Perhaps not as blunt as Beit Shammai, but not as sweeping and broad as Beit Hillel, either. At your Shabbat tables this week, and in your world at large, I encourage you to invite others to gently share their feedback of you, and find ways to share yours of them.

Rabbi Daniel Braune-Friedman is the
senior rabbi and director of spiritual life at Charles E. Smith Life Communities.

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