“Can It Be a Mitzvah to Lie?”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

The late great Bible teacher, Nehama Leibowitz, alerts us to a major issue that appears in the narrative of this week’s parasha, Vayechi.

After Jacob’s death, Joseph’s brothers are concerned that Joseph still hates them and that he will avenge the evil that they had done to him. In order to avert Joseph’s vengeance, they send a message to their brother saying (Genesis 50:16-17): “Ah’vee’chah tzee’vah lif’nay mo’to lay’mor.” Your father [Jacob] commanded before he died, saying: “So shall you say to Joseph. Please kindly forgive the spiteful deed of your brothers and their sin, for they have done you evil.” When Joseph hears this he begins to weep. The brothers then fling themselves before Joseph and say, “We are ready to be your slaves.” Joseph, however, assures them that there is nothing to fear and says: “Am I instead of G-d? Although you intended me harm, G-d intended it for good… that a vast people be kept alive. So now fear not, I will sustain you and your young ones.” Thus Joseph comforted his brothers and spoke to their hearts.

Leibowitz, citing Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, says that Joseph instantly understood that his father had left no such message. After all, it is inconceivable that Jacob would have entrusted the brothers with such a message and not informed Joseph directly. The reason that Joseph wept, says Luzzato, was that he finally perceived the tragic state of his brothers and realized how deeply they feared for their lives and dreaded his vengeance.

Many commentators agree that Jacob could never have made such a statement, but for an entirely different reason. They maintain that Jacob never really learned the truth about Joseph’s disappearance. Apparently Joseph tried to keep away from Jacob as much as possible, lest his father ply him with questions about the real facts concerning his disappearance. To prove that Joseph kept his distance from Jacob they point to Genesis 48:1, which says, “Va’yo’mer l’Yosef, hee’nay ah’vee’chah cho’leh,” Someone said to Joseph, behold your father is ill, indicating that Joseph was away from his father. The Ramban suggests that Jacob simply assumed that Joseph somehow lost his way in the grazing fields and was sold by his finders to Egypt.

If that’s the case, if Jacob never knew the real story of how Joseph came to be in Egypt, then clearly the brothers are now lying by telling Joseph that their father insisted that he forgive them!

This, of course, raises a further question. How is it possible that the brothers can lie so shamelessly? Rashi notes in his commentary on Genesis 50:16, “Shee’noo ba’da’var mip’nay ha’shalom,” the brothers deviated from the truth for the sake of peace.

Nehama Leibowitz cites a midrash in Bereishit Rabbah 100, 9 where Rav Shimon ben Gamliel states: “Gadol Hashalom,” great is peace, for in order to promote peace between themselves and Joseph, even the tribes spoke falsehoods when they said, “Your father commanded before he died …Please forgive the spiteful deed of your brothers and their sin.” As justification for the Midrash, Nehama Leibowitz cites the Talmud in Yevamot 65b: Rabbi Ila’a said in the name of Rabbi Eliezer ben Rabbi Shimon: “Moo’tar lo la’ah’dahm l’shah’not bid’var shalom,” It is permissible for a person to deviate from the truth in the interest of peace.

It is widely assumed by many that all noble values are absolute values, lacking shades of gray. So, for instance, when the Bible says in Exodus 20:13, “Lo tir’tzach,” Thou shalt not murder, many conclude that killing is never justified. However, if we look closely at the phrase “Lo tir’tzach,” it literally means that “murder,” the illegal taking of life, is prohibited. However, there surely are times when “killing” is permitted, such as in self-defense.

Similarly, it is generally assumed that speaking evil of others is strictly prohibited. After all, scripture clearly states (Leviticus 19) “Lo tay’laych rah’cheel b’ah’mech’chah,” You shalt not go as a talebearer among your nation.* And yet we know that speaking evil about another person is not only permitted but is often required in order to save an innocent person from an economic or social loss. Consequently, if someone has first-hand knowledge that a person is dishonest, he is required to volunteer the information to someone who is considering doing business with this dishonest person in order to spare the unwitting partner from an economic loss.

While people are normally expected to speak only the truth, one need not tell the whole truth if relating only the partial truth can save a person from hurt or embarrassment. And so, in Genesis 18:13-14, we find that G-d asks Abraham: “Why did Sarah laugh saying, ‘Shall I in truth bear a child though I have aged?'” After all, says G-d, is there anything beyond G-d’s power? G-d then assures Abraham that at the appointed time He will return next year and Sarah will have a son. Our rabbis learn from this that for the sake of peace between husband and wife, the Al-mighty Himself did not tell the whole truth. After all, if we check Sarah’s original statement we see that she not only said that she was old, but she in fact added (Genesis 18:12) “And my husband is old!” But G-d changed the uncomplimentary reference from her husband to herself.

Apparently, values, even the most exalted values, are not absolute when there is the possibility of achieving a greater good. How powerful, we see, is the value of Shalom Bayit–peace in the household, domestic tranquility between marital partners. And so it is that, even though the third commandment of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:7) strictly forbids using G-d’s name in vain, in the case of the Sotah, the suspected unfaithful wife (Numbers 5:23), an entire text with G-d’s name is written on parchment and is summarily erased in order to bring peace between husband and wife. The Talmud Yerushalmi Sotah 1:4 says that so great is domestic tranquility that G-d commanded that His own name be erased in order to bring peace between a man and his wife!

And so we see that, while Judaism generally subscribes to the concept of absolute morals and values, there really are no true “absolutes,” and that each value and situation must be judged within its own context.

Of course, encouraging such latitude with respect to values is fraught with danger. Once such flexibility and redefining is sanctioned even minimally, we often find ourselves with little left that may be categorized as “absolute.” And so, the rabbis give us very precise guidelines, which we must always follow with a hefty dose of respect and trepidation, and not be overly flexible.

Joseph’s brothers had clearly shown full contrition, beyond any shadow of doubt. They stood up for Benjamin and were prepared to give themselves up as slaves in order to ensure Benjamin’s safety. They were true penitents and did not deserve to be punished any further, Joseph’s perceived wrath or desire for vengeance notwithstanding. Therefore, in this particular circumstance, they were entirely justified in deviating from the truth.

While truth is an ultimate value, so is peace. At times truth overrules peace, at other times peace overrules truth. Let us pray that we will never have to face these difficult choices, and that peace and truth will both prevail in our midst in perfect harmony.

May you be blessed.

*The Chofetz Chaim (R’ Yisrael Meir HaKohen of Radin, 1838-1933, famous for his saintly qualities, a foremost leader of Jewry) cites 31 commandments (17 negative mitzvot and 14 positive mitzvot) that could be transgressed when speaking evil.