"Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph" by Rembrandt, 1656
"Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph" by Rembrandt, 1656

Sometimes, an inflated capital-T Truth is needed to deflate disharmony

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The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.


Vayechi

Genesis 47:28–50:26


“Praised is the Eternal one, sovereign of the universe, who has given us a Torah of truth, and planted within us everlasting life …” — traditional blessing over concluding the Torah reading

Torat Emet — a Torah of truth” is a puzzling phrase. Are we to believe that the stories, myths and miracles in the Jewish Bible are absolutely true as described? Or does this expression, from the prophet Malachi (2:6), teach instead that the Torah is a book of deep, profound, capital-T Truths about life and living?

Primarily, at least to my thinking, it’s the latter.

But what are we to do with the occasional bent truth, or even outright untruth, that appears in our sacred text? Could even the “not so true” give insight into Judaism’s most cherished values and Truths?

After a long and tumultuous life, Jacob died and was “gathered to his kin” (Genesis 49:33). The mourning and burial period was elaborate, and when it ended, Joseph’s brothers feared he would finally avenge their earlier, near-murderous treatment of him. So, they concocted a tale:

“They sent this message to Joseph, ‘Before his death your father left this instruction — Say to Joseph: ‘Forgive, I urge you, the offense and guilt of your brothers who treated you so harshly.’ Therefore, please forgive the offense of the servants of the God of your father’s [house].” (Gen 50:16-17)

The late patriarch seems to have wished nothing more before his death than reconciliation between his estranged sons. As far as we know, it was a total fabrication, though it led to a glorious (and unprecedented) act of forgiveness:

“Joseph said to them, ‘Have no fear! Am I a substitute for God? Moreover, although you intended me harm, God intended it for good, so as to bring about the survival of many people. Fear not. I will sustain you and your dependents. Thus, he reassured them, and spoke soothingly to them.” (Gen 50:19-21)

In the days of multicolored coats and portentous dreams, there was no joy in the House of Jacob. Quite literally, the brothers “could not speak a word of shalom/peace to [Joseph]” (Gen 37:4). By the end of Genesis, the brothers’ Great Fib meant the family could finally be reunited in both body and spirit. Shalom bayit, peace in the home, was restored.

This episode stands out, but it is not alone. Shocked at the notion that she could become pregnant, Mother Sarah had said, “Will I have pleasure again, with a husband so old?” (Gen 18:12)

But God told a half-truth, sparing Abraham’s feelings and deliberately misquoting Sarah: “why did Sarah laugh, saying ‘will I really have a child, now that I am old?’” (Gen 18:13)

God’s omission of Sarah’s derisive words, and the brothers’ fiction of Jacob’s “instructions,” led the sages to determine that truth could, even should, be stretched for the sake of maintaining familial harmony.

The two instances work in tandem and out of necessity. If only God spoke with pretense, we would assume the privilege was reserved only for the Most High. If only the brothers spoke falsely (despite the happy ending), we might correctly question their choices and behaviors yet again.

In the two events, we observe a carefully constructed Truth, offered with restraint and wisdom — we must use caution when molding the truth, but know that there is room to do so when so much is at stake.

“Shalom bayit” is a rare and precious commodity. Far too many homes are without it, too many families are in rupture, and for our countless brethren who have no permanent or even temporary home, finding peace is even more elusive. This is a Truth of our age.

There are ways to help. One is through support of caring organizations such as the aptly named Shalom Bayit, a Bay Area tzedakah that offers sanctuary to families suffering the scourge of domestic violence, and aims to increase awareness of the pain and lasting trauma of abuse in the home.

For years, Congregation Ner Tamid has participated in Shalom Bayit’s annual Adopt-a-Family program, where a synagogue community donates wished-for items for (typically) a mother and children who have been forced to flee an untenable situation. It’s a drop in the ocean, but it has a huge impact, one family at a time.

I concur with the Rabbis that Shalom bayit is an absolutely godly objective. It’s even worth telling an intermittent “tall tale” to preserve it and safeguard the dignity and safety of our loved ones.

But I would add a note of caution.

Excessive “peace-making” can sometimes obscure real, hard truths that need to be said. Failing to give guidance and discipline to young ones, or ignoring destructive lifestyles and habits of older ones, can mire a household in denial and paralysis. Families simply have to develop constructive communication habits and even engage in rebuke at times, also a deeply held Torah value (see Leviticus 19:17, right before “love your neighbor …”)

Shalom bayit doesn’t always mean “adjusting” the truth to ensure it. Sometimes, telling it straight is the most loving act that there can be. It’s a delicate art, to be sure. And that is a capital-T Truth.

Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon
Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon

Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon is rabbi of Congregation Ner Tamid in the Sunset District of San Francisco, her hometown. She is a graduate of the Academy for Jewish Religion California and a member of Rabbis Without Borders. She can be reached at [email protected].