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Parashat Vayigash - The Heart's Truth

The Heart's Truth

Further thoughts on Parashat Vayigash

by John J. Parsons
www.hebrew4christians.com

According to Jewish tradition, it was Joseph's firstborn son Manasseh who was "the steward" who planted the silver goblet in Benjamin's sack and had him arrested as a thief (Gen. 44:1-13). But did Manasseh knowingly participate in Joseph's orchestrated charade? Did he understand that his uncles had come to Egypt or did he regard them simply as "Canaanite strangers"?  Was he was simply "obeying orders" from his father as "Joseph's steward," or was he willingly conspiring against his uncles as Joseph's son? Regardless of his exact motivation, however, Jewish tradition maintains that Manasseh forfeited part of his inheritance for causing his uncles to rend their garments. As a divine consequence, the descendants of Manasseh were decreed to be the first of Israel carried into captivity by the Assyrians (c. 740 BC).

The moral of this story is that duplicitous words and actions -- even if they are intended to promote a greater good -- are unjustified and can even cause us to lose a portion of the blessing intended for our lives. The end never justifies the means. God is not a pragmatist, and there are no "noble lies" for sake of the Kingdom of Heaven.

But what are we to make of Joseph's words and actions?  Wasn't his charade and his scheme to entrap his brothers based on deception? What's the difference between Manasseh's deception and his father Joseph's? Why does Jewish tradition forgive Joseph for his duplicity but blame his son? Moreover, why didn't Joseph send a message to his father after he became a man of power in Egypt?  For that matter, why didn't he show compassion for his obviously needy family during a time of famine? Why did he exacerbate their suffering by arresting Simeon, thereby greatly increasing the heartache of Jacob (Gen. 42:24)? If Manasseh was punished for causing his uncle's garments to be rent, how much more should Joseph have been punished for the suffering he caused his entire family?

Various answers to these questions have been offered by the sages. Maimonides claimed that Joseph acted the way he did to see if his brothers had genuinely regretted their actions. Other sages have said that Joseph might have thought his father was somehow involved in the conspiracy to sell him.  After all, Jacob had publicly reprimanded his son for his dreams (Gen. 37:10) and was the one who initially sent his son on the mission to spy on his brothers (Gen. 37:14) -- which eventually led to his sale to the Ishmaelites (Gen. 37:28). Moreover, wasn't Joseph's firstborn son called Manasseh (מְנַשֶּׁה), meaning "forgetting" in reference to "all my father's house" (Gen. 41:51)? Still others disagree and say that Joseph "forgot" his father's house because had he disclosed the truth, Jacob would have cursed his sons, and Joseph did not want this to occur. Joseph's withholding of his identity was therefore to be understood as an act of mercy toward his brothers. Still others say that Joseph's neglect of his father was the consequence of his father's neglect of his father Isaac while he was captive to Laban (i.e., the "sins of the fathers" are passed on to their children).  And so on... 

Perhaps the difference lies in the inward heart motivation.  Joseph was endued with prophetic wisdom that was evidenced early in his life. His family listened as he recounted his God-given dreams. They must have understood the stakes of being the firstborn son (bechor) of Israel and therefore the stakes for the fledgling nation... Moreover, the battle between Joseph and his brothers was Joseph's -- not Manasseh's -- and therefore Manasseh was wrong to "take on" the offense of his father.  Joseph's deception was therefore strategic, intended to defeat the initial deception of his father Jacob by his brothers... Furthermore, the silver goblet surreptitiously put into Benjamin's sack and the phony charges might have come from another motive: perhaps he could not tolerate the pain of further separation from his only full-blooded brother (and son of his mother Rachel). Perhaps Joseph didn't want to risk never seeing Benjamin again, so his deception was based on love itself. Maimonides wrote that "Joseph was afraid that the brothers hated Benjamin, or were jealous of their father's love for him as they had been jealous of Joseph. He was afraid that Benjamin had realized that they had harmed Joseph and this had led to acrimony between them. Therefore Joseph did not want Benjamin to go with them lest they harm him, until he had verified their love for him" (Ramban, 42:9). Still, there is the nagging question, if Joseph had such compassion for his brother, why didn't he send word to his father after he began his ascent in Egypt?

There are various other cases of seemingly justified cases of deception in the Bible, of course. Both Abraham and Isaac deceived Avimelech yet were prospered by God (Gen. 20:14-15; Gen. 26:11-16); Jacob deceived his father Isaac yet inherited the divine blessing (Gen. 27:19,33); Leah and Rachel deceived Jacob yet became the matriarchs of Israel (Gen. 29:25); Joseph deceived his brothers yet was elevated as a savior of the family (Gen. 39-45); the Jewish midwives lied to Pharaoh concerning the birth of Jewish babies yet were rewarded by God (Exod. 1:17-20); Rahab lied to the king about the whereabouts of Joshua's spies yet became part of the lineage of Messiah (Josh. 2); Jael pretended to offer Sisera protection but hammered a tent peg into his head while he was asleep (Judges 4); Nathan the prophet "deceived" David into confessing his sin with Bathsheeba (2 Sam. 12); Mordecai and Haddasah hid the fact that they were Jews, etc.  I am sure you can think of other examples.

There are a lot of questions regarding all of this, though wisdom explicitly instructs us to refrain from the practice of deception in our lives. The Scriptures clearly teach that deception is morally blameworthy: "Shall I acquit the man with wicked scales and with a bag of deceitful weights?" (Micah 6:11). The Holy Spirit, moreover, is called the Spirit of Truth (John 14:17, 16:13), and it is "impossible for God to lie" (Num. 23:19, Heb. 6:18, Titus 1:2). The Apostle Paul wrote: "Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another" (Eph. 4:25), and "Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices" (Col. 3:9). Throughout the ethical teaching of the Scriptures, the tzaddik, the righteous man, is always described as yashar - full of integrity and moral righteousness.  In the heavenly Jerusalem to come, truth will reign completely, and "outside are the dogs and sorcerers and the sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood" (Rev. 22:14).

Nonetheless, if deception is sometimes sovereignly "allowed" for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven, the converse also appears to be true.  Truth is sometimes expressed for the sake of the kingdom of Hell...

Sometimes true words and actions performed in an unloving or spiteful manner are morally blameworthy. Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–1945) tells the story about how a teacher once humiliated one of her students by standing him up in front of the class to ask whether his father -- notoriously known as the town drunk -- had been out drinking the night before. The little boy knew the accusation was true but bravely announced "No."  When the teacher mockingly asked him again, pressing him for  "the truth," the boy was adamant: "NO!" Bonhoeffer's comment was that this little boy spoke more truth by his lie than if he had merely reported the "facts" to the class -- and thereby betrayed the dignity of his father... The truth is not some objective state of affairs that can be reported dispassionately. Without love as its context, such "truth" becomes a lie. Satan keeps his own books.

It is said that Joseph never told Jacob the truth about his betrayal by his brothers, not even when Jacob was on his deathbed.  His love forbade him to engage in lashon hara (evil speech) or to bring further pain to his father.  Love overlooks a multitude of transgressions. May God help us all "speak the truth in love" -- or else help us to keep silent.


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