Shabbat Shalom with a Heart-Healthy Dose of Torah – Va-y’chi

Have you ever been so afraid that you will say almost anything to free yourself of fear’s grip? You know, the classic moment when, even if caught red handed, you try to convince your accuser (and perhaps yourself) that the facts are not as they seem. This is a classic Sherlock Holmes attempt to disprove what to everyone around you seems to be the obvious … only in your case, you really are guilty. I remember sneaking candy once as a young child. I had a bunch of tootsie rolls rolled up in my shirt. I was a five year old fullback “wanna be,” as I went barreling through the hallway on the way to my bedroom. My father stopped me, concerned that I was doubled over … fearing that I was in pain or distress. Well, after he stopped me, I was in distress. He saw the candy and looked at me with those deep accusing eyes. Summoning all of the wisdom and innocence available to a trapped five year old, I exclaimed, “How did that get there?” I do not remember much after that, except that it was a favorite story told to embarrass me, and that I was in a heap of trouble. If only knew then, what I know now!

There are a few texts from Torah that could have proven essential to my defense, and one of them happens in this week’s Torah portion. Way back in Genesis, When God tells Abraham that he and Sarah will have a child (Isaac), Sarah laughs at the prospect of Abraham fathering a child. When asked why she laughed, God told a white lie, responding that Sarah laughed at the prospects of her ability to have a child. This lie preserved the peace of Abraham’s house. This week, after Jacob dies, Joseph’s brothers find themselves fearing that Joseph will now (since Dad is gone) take his vengeance out against them. He had seemingly looked past what they did to him when they were young, and now he had an opportunity to take revenge. After burying their father, they schemed and “They sent word urgently to Joseph, saying:[Your father said]’So shall you say to Joseph: Forgive, I pray you now, the trespass of your brothers, and their sin; for they did evil to you.’ And now, we pray you, forgive the trespass of the servants of the God of your father.” And Joseph wept when they spoke to him…’ (50:16-18)” (Jacob did not, in fact, say this, for he did not suspect Joseph of revenge.)

Said Rabbi I’laah in the name of Rabbi Eleazar ben Rabbi Simeon, “So great is peace that white lies are allowed.” God can tell them to preserve the marital relationship. Joseph’s brothers can lie to save their lives. (Talmud, Yevamot 65b; Rashi)

Really? So I could have told my father that my lie was ok; I was, after all, just trying to save my hide and his blood pressure! You know, keep peace in the house. I just do not think that the real world works this way. How do we teach that honesty is the best policy … sometimes?

Here is where I think that “proof texting” gets us in trouble. Lying is never good; it may seem necessary … even helpful in the short term, but it cannot ever be a good thing long term. Built into our system of faith is the process of atonement … literally an opportunity to create an “at-one-ment” with each other. We are obligated to work with each other to heal breaches and to build relationships. Relationships have to be rooted in trust, and where we start from the premise that there are lies that we are allowed to tell each other … we are in trouble. Now, that does mean that we dare not care for each other’s feelings, but if we have to overtly lie to each other, there is an insecurity that controls our relationships and our destinies. This is also not to say that we need to remember to filter what needs to be said and what needs to be kept to ourselves. We certainly are under no obligation to share everything that we think.

There are times that our tradition makes one take a step back to think. Without further commentary, the blanket statement that justifies lying for the sake of peace sets us up for disastrous relationships. Where is the line that separates the harmless white lie that keeps peace from the lie that challenges all future integrity?

Yes, Joseph did not hold the lie against his brothers, but the following verses tell us that their need to lie grieved him deeply. He was already not bent on seeking revenge, though the lie might have changed his mind. No, our path is through teshuvah … returning to each other and through the sometimes very tough work of healing relationships. Each healed breach returns the world from some piece of its brokenness, and avoiding this necessary work would be no different than if one forced the wrong piece of a puzzle into place and called it a day. The picture cannot be whole, so long as the pieces are not in place. Our lives and the spiritual health of the world are no different. We have to protect each other’s dignity remember that even if true, some things don’t need to be said … and where we err, we need to own the error and the appropriate response. We have to seek and give forgiveness to each other and to ourselves. We have to be honest and compassionate for what we hold each other accountable. The world cannot heal until we can be secure within ourselves and within our communities. There is no more effective path to security than through the commitment to be trustworthy and having the ability to trust. Let’s take care of each other better this year. Shabbat Shalom.