‘You may distort the truth to preserve peace.’ So said Rabbi Nachman of Brastlav, and seeing the damage caused world wide by the revelations on Wiki-leaks this week, there is a strong case for – if not distorting the truth, at least holding some of it back on occasion.
But seen starkly and coming from such an esteemed religious leader of the past, the statement sits uncomfortably. What will others make of this? Does it not play into the anti-Semitic stereotype of Jews that can’t be trusted? Moreover, what is a distortion of truth? Is it not simply a bare faced lie? We have to remember the second phrase of the statement – ‘to preserve peace.’ We are taught, that we can break 610 of the 613 commandments to preserve life – only three are more important than life itself – so it makes sense to break just one if it preserves peace, which in itself will save lives.
There are precedents too. The midrash speaks of Aharon, the High Priest and pursuer of peace, who when two men fell out would go to each of them and explain how the other was weeping and mourning the loss of their friendship. This meant, that when the two met, they would embrace and apologise to each other instantly. Aharon had fabricated a complete lie, but it had the desired effect. In the Bible we have a similar situation with a distortion of the truth by God himself. When Sarah overhears the promise to Abraham that they will have a son, she bursts out laughing asking how is it possible with her husband being so old? When God repeats her words to Abraham, he changes the person, indicating she is incredulous because she herself is so old.
Thus God maintained shalom bayit tranquility in the home. Abraham would not have been happy to have his infirmities mocked by his wife.
The way Joseph behaves in our portion has a similar effect. We read this Shabbat of how famine has hit, and the ten brothers who sold Joseph into slavery have made their way down to Egypt to buy grain. Joseph recognizes them, but they do not recognise him. They bow down to what they see as the Grand Vizier of Egypt. Joseph remembers his dreams. This was his moment of revenge. He could have them locked up, he could have them tortured or killed as spies. He could do anything. He could simply have revealed himself to them then and there – and watch them squirm and excuse themselves. That may have given him satisfaction, but it would not have healed the breach that had widened from their act of treachery through the many intervening years. What Joseph wanted was to be reconciled – to find out about his father, and his younger brother. He wanted to see them again and to unite the family once more.
To do this required a bit of distortion of the truth. He had to hide his identity from them, pretend an anger he did not feel, accuse them of spying. It seems a convoluted plot designed more for the amusement of the listener to the story than for the story itself. But Joseph needed to know if his brothers had changed, if they still hated him so much, if they were prepared to betray the second son of his mother too. It was when he realized how they loved Benjamin, how, they mourned the loss of Joseph; it was only then that he could reveal himself secure in the knowledge that they, like the men in Aharon’s tale, would embrace each other in peace.
Hillel said: Be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving your fellow human beings and drawing them near to Torah. (Mishnah Pirkei Avot 1:12)
Sybil A. Sheridan