Was Abe Lincoln Honest?
Some of the more amusing commercials running on television today are put out by GEICO. One series of ads begins with the question, “Would switching to GEICO save you money on car insurance?” My favorite in this series addresses the potential consumer with yet another question: “Was Abe Lincoln honest?!” What follows is grainy footage of Abe Lincoln’s wife asking him if the dress she just tried on looks flattering on her; we then see Honest Abe struggle, trying to suppress his opinion ultimately without success. He tells Mrs. L. the bad news and she walks away from him in frustration and, one would imagine, anger. Abe Lincoln was so honest that he would not even compromise his truth telling in order to protect his wife’s feelings. (The message is: of course, Abe Lincoln was honest, and of course, GEICO can save you money on car insurance.) What is memorable is that Abe doesn’t make the decision that most of us would have made: he doesn’t offer the small, white lie for what we might consider to be the greater good of protecting his wife’s feelings.
A well-known reading of our Torah portion for this Shabbat finds a source from the story of Joseph’s interactions with his brothers for the idea that the small fib—the white lie—is religiously justified in certain circumstances. After Jacob’s death, the brothers keep their promise to their father and take his body back to Canaan to bury him in the cave of Makhpelah, the burial site of his ancestors. At the conclusion of the mourning period, the family returns to Egypt without Jacob. As the brothers settle back into their lives in Egypt, a familiar anxiety begins to blossom. They express their fear: “What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrong that we did him!” (Gen. 50:15).
In truth, this seems like worry well-placed. Behind their words lies an unspoken incredulity perhaps complicated by lingering guilt. In the terseness of the text, I imagine the brothers’ conversation held behind closed doors: “Is it possible that Joseph really forgave us for taking him from his family and selling him into slavery? We have not spoken of the incident in the 17 years since our reconciliation with him. In fact, we have never asked for his forgiveness for the terrible wrong we perpetrated against him (see chapter 45). Perhaps Joseph has patiently waited for our father’s passing before he moved to settle old scores?” (Think Godfather and Michael Corleone’s relationship with his younger brother Fredo.)
Given these well-placed fears, the brothers send a message to Joseph: “Before his death, your father left instruction: So shall you say to Joseph, ‘Forgive, I urge you, the offense and guilt of your brothers who treated you so harshly'” (Gen. 50:16–7). Jacob speaks from beyond the grave and instructs Joseph to pardon his brothers. But, of course, this message is painfully contrived. There is no record of this statement in the Torah. If this was indeed Jacob’s instruction, why had he not shared it directly with Joseph as he was offering his sons his last will and testament before he died? Indeed, by juxtaposing this new deathbed wish with their concern that Joseph would now seek his revenge (Gen. 50:15–16), the Torah intimates that this is a desperate fabrication created by the brothers in response to their fears. Joseph’s reaction to hearing this lie is that he cries. He reassures his brothers that he intends them no harm.
Basing themselves on this incident, two Sages from the Talmud conclude: “It is permitted to lie for the sake of peace” [BT Yevamot 65b]. This rabbinic reading of Va-yehi is popular because, I think, it intuitively makes sense and resonates with our life experience. Many of us have lied for the sake of a perceived greater good. Generally, we don’t even call such an act a “lie.” We have a special expression for it: a “white lie.”
It seems to me that by accepting this rabbinic reading we let the brothers off the hook too easily and, in so doing, deprive ourselves of an important conversation. The brothers go too quickly to the white lie. Instead of speaking with courage, acknowledging their lingering guilt and their fear, they make up this story. In the 17 years since their reunion with Joseph, they have not once expressed shame for their behavior. They have never offered regret. They seek forgiveness in contrived words put in the mouth of Jacob. Instead of finding the strength to have a difficult conversation, they keep their feelings buried and Joseph must intuit their true feelings behind the lies spoken.
When we choose silence or a small fib told presumably in the name of peace, often something more than truth is compromised. Only when we challenge ourselves to find the courage and the gentle words to say difficult things can we expect intimacy to grow. The brothers have no reason to fear Joseph, but we have no reason to hope that the distance between Jacob’s sons will ever be meaningfully healed. Their relationship will not deepen as it might have through an honest exchange. Instead of justifying the brothers’ behavior, we would have been better served had the Rabbis of the Talmud used this incident in our parashah as an opportunity to challenge the ways we too easily permit ourselves to avoid conversations, bury our fears and feelings, and justify our actions by claiming the primacy of a competing good.
The publication and distribution of the JTS Torah Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.