Parashat Vayechi 5780

Rabbi Richard Jacobi – 10 January 2020

Justifiable Lying

The final parashah in Bereishit (Torah portion of Genesis) is often seen as some kind of happy ending to the dramatic and foundational family story of those Middle East Enders – Jacob and Sons. Indeed, our Liberal Siddur, in its marvellous anthology of themes drawn from each of the 53 parashiot read on a Shabbat morning (the 54th, V’zot Habrachah is reserved for Simchat Torah) chooses “Reconciliation” for this week’s portion.

However, just as audiences in our modern day soap operas, such as East Enders, get to see the lies that are told by one character to another, so we readers of Torah get to see that the beginning of the path to reconciliation in chapter 50 is one further lie.

Remember, Jacob has been a liar, to his father, brother, and cousin among others and has seemed to benefit from these untruths. His brothers lied about Joseph’s death when they took his blood-stained multi-coloured coat back to Jacob. Now, they conspire together to tell a further lie to Joseph:

    “Your father commanded before he died, saying, ‘Thus you shall say to Joseph: Please, I beg you, forgive now the transgression of your brothers, and their sin, for they did evil to you. Now, please forgive the transgression of the servants of your father’s God.” Joseph wept as they spoke to him. (Gen. 50: 16 – 17)

The commentators explore what the reason was for Joseph’s tears – a plain reading would be that he was moved by his father’s words, spoken to him by the brothers. However, in Talmud and Midrash, it is clear that rabbis believed Joseph knew his brothers were lying and was crying because the level of trust was still so low that they feared for their future after Jacob’s death.

Here, in our parashah is a “white lie”, and both R. Ilaa and R. Shimon ben Gamaliel taught that a lie told for the sake of peace is justified. “What?!” Surely the Ten Commandments tell us not to lie? Well, actually the ninth commandment is “You shall not bear false witness” and so is restricted to court / legal settings where the idea of telling ‘the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth’ is developed. (The meaning of this is a whole further Thought for the Week!)

So, what our Torah really teaches, and rabbinic Judaism has developed is that there are times when we must, should or could lie. Here are a few Jewish justifications for lying:

  • Complimenting a bride in front of her groom (Ketubot 17a).
  • Not publicising someone’s free hospitality from which you benefitted (Arachin 16a).
  • Being modest about one’s own fluency in reading and interpreting Torah / Talmud (Bava Metzia 23b).
  • If ‘marital intimacy’ has made you late for an appointment, one can give a different reason (Orchot Tzadikim).
  • Where life is in danger (e.g. Abraham [twice!] and Isaac using the ‘sister’ title for their wives – Gen. 12:13, 20:2, 26:7).

So, as a thought for this week, being committed to telling the truth in every circumstance may seem laudable, but ethicists have grappled with this for literally thousands of years without reaching agreement.

The really important thing, I believe, is to be honest with ourselves about our motivations for telling a lie before we tell it. If it is truly and genuinely a white lie that will benefit all parties and hurt no-one, then go ahead.

If not, then we can and must find a better path than to lie, because we aren’t acting in a soap opera, we are living in a real world with real consequences and our words do matter.

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