Sunday, December 8, 2013

How much truth to tell? / Parshat Vayechi

Do you always tell the truth, accurately, precisely, and completely? If you’re human, probably not. R. Shimon b. Gamliel taught that, the world endures because of three things: justice, truth, and peace (Pirke Avot 1:18). Despite the emphasis we rightly place on honesty and transparency, telling the unvarnished truth is not appropriate in every instance. Parashat Vayechi provides an example of when not to disclose all, and how to shade the truth appropriately and elegantly when necessary.

Jacob lived seventeen years in the land of Egypt, so that the span of Jacob’s life came to one hundred and forty-seven years. And when the time approached for Israel to die, he summoned his son Joseph and said to him, “Do me this favor, place your hand under my thigh as a pledge of your steadfast loyalty: please do not bury me in Egypt. When I lie down with my fathers, take me up from Egypt and bury me in their burial-place.” (Genesis 47:28-30)

It is abundantly clear that Jacob’s primary concern is that he not be buried in Egypt. Accordingly, when Jacob dies, Joseph orders the physicians of Egypt to embalm his father, a process that Torah reports requires forty days to complete. We might think that Joseph has Jacob’s body embalmed because this is Egyptian practice, but it is far more plausible that Jacob will need to transport his father’s remains a long distance before interring them in the Cave of Machpelah.

…when the wailing period was over, Joseph spoke to Pharaoh’s court, saying, “Do me this favor, and lay this appeal before Pharaoh: ‘My father made me swear, saying, “I am about to die Be sure to bury me in the grave which I made ready for myself in the land of Canaan.” Now, therefore, let me go up and bury my father; then I shall return.” And Pharaoh said, “Go up and bury your father, as he made you promise on oath.” (Genesis 50:4-6)

Joseph does not tell Pharaoh’s courtiers that Jacob was loathe to be buried in Egypt—the full truth—but rather that he wished to be buried with his ancestors, a partial truth. The real reason would have been an insult to Pharaoh and all Egypt; the given reason is understandable and innocuous. Regardless, Joseph is not entirely truthful with Pharaoh.

Torah tells us of other lies that were told, not only without criticism, but apparently with approval. God tells the first. And Sarah [eavesdropping on the conversation between Abraham and the three angels who have come to announce the birth of Isaac] laughed to herself, saying, “Now that I am withered, am I to have enjoyment with my husband so old?” (Genesis 18:12) Sarah cannot imagine Abraham capable of siring a child. God reports her words to Abraham rather differently: Then the Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, saying, ‘Shall I in truth bear a child, old as I am?’” (Genesis 18:13) In God’s telling, Sarah’s concern is her own capacity to conceive, not Abraham’s ability to impregnate. The midwives in Egypt, Shifra and Puah, also lie. They tell Pharaoh that they have been unable to comply with his command to kill the baby boys of the Israelites, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women: they are vigorous. Before the midwife can come to them, they have given birth” (Exodus 1:19).

Philosophers and theologians have long argued whether lying is ever morally permitted or not. If the lie would benefit the one who hears it, is it permissible? Do the intentions of the one uttering the lie matter? Ought we apply the “Golden Rule” (“Do unto others…”) or Hillel’s principle (“What is hateful to you…”)?
While Scripture generally lauds truth telling, the Rabbis recognized that the realities and exigencies of life require us to exert sound and sensitive judgment. Sometimes the moral road involves bending the truth, avoiding the truth, and even outright lying.

Talmud permits lying in the interest of peace, and provides three examples.

R. Ilai said in the name of R. Elazar ben R. Shimon: It is permitted for a person to deviate from the truth in the interest of peace, as it says (Genesis 50: 16-17): "Your father [Jacob] commanded before his death, saying: So shall you say to Joseph, ‘O please forgive the offense of your brothers and their sin for they have treated you so wickedly.’"

R. Natan said: It is a mitzvah [i.e., to lie in the interest of peace], as it says: And Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears of it, he will kill me” (I Samuel 16:2).

The School of R. Yishmael taught: Great is the cause of peace, seeing that for its sake, even the Holy One, blessed be God, changed the truth, for at first it is written, ‘My lord [i.e., Sarah’s husband Abraham] is old,” (Genesis 18:12), while afterward it is written "And I am old" (18:13). (BT Yebamot 65b)

The first example, rather than citing Joseph’s lie to Pharaoh (which is clearly intended to keep peace) curiously cites his brothers’ blatant lie and coercive fabrication concerning what father Jacob said before he died. The Talmud next cites God’s advice to the prophet Samuel to use the deception of a sacrifice to conceal his true mission to anoint David as king in place of Saul. This is followed by the example of God’s fudging of the truth for Abraham, which we mentioned above. Perhaps most surprising is R. Natan’s view that there are times when one is commanded—not just permitted—to lie. And indeed, this is confirmed in a famous discussion in BT Ketubot 16b-17a concerning what one says about a bride. The School of Shammai say we call ‘em as we see ‘em, but the School of Hillel tell us that one always praises the bride as beautiful and graceful regardless of objective reality.

Absolutists, from Aristotle to Immanuel Kant have claimed that deviation from the truth is never morally justifiable. Like the School of Shammai, they leave us no wiggle room to employ our best judgment. While we can always know we are “right” by never lying, the sensibilities and feelings of others may well be sacrificed on the altar of smug self-righteousness. The absolute standard may simplify things but that is not the same as improving things. Rabbinic tradition is replete with stories of Sages who told lies, formulated ruses, and avoided the truth in order to spare someone humiliation or hurt feelings. Sometimes we are trapped by a question we are asked—surely this has happened to you—but the Rabbis even considered the possibility that a lie created ex nihilo could have moral weight. I leave you with one more marvelous and instructive teaching from the rabbinic imagination:

When two people quarreled, Aaron [the High Priest] went and sat near one of them and said to him, “My son, do you see what your friend is doing? He is beating his breast and rending his clothing saying, ‘Woe is me! How can I even look at my friend? I am so ashamed of myself since I was the one who offended him.’” Aaron would sit with him until he removed the hatred from his heart. Aaron would then go and sit next to the other and say to him, "My son, do you see what your friend is doing? He is beating his breast and rending his clothing saying, ‘Woe is me! How can I even look at my friend? I am so ashamed of myself since I was the one who offended him.’” Aaron would sit with him until he removed the hatred from his heart. When the two met, they would hug and kiss each other. (Avot de-Rabbi Natan 12:3)
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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