Saturday, December 29, 2012

Peace, Truth and Reconciliation

The Book of Genesis ends with a touching scene between Joseph and his brothers, one of genuine reconciliation – built on a lie. The Midrash Tanhuma (Tzav 10) writes:

Said Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel: “So great is the power of peace that the Holy One, Blessed be He, wrote fictions in the Torah for the sake of peace. For when Jacob died… what did they do? They went to Bilha and told her: ‘Get in with Joseph and tell him: “Your father commanded before he died, saying"’ (ibid v. 16), even though Jacob never commanded any of these things; rather, they said this on their own.”

In fact, Scripture gives us some textual clues as well, using the exact same expression to introduce the conflict between Esau and Jacob (27:3) as it does to conclude the conflict between Joseph and his brothers (50:17). Jacob lied to his own father, initiating a rift with his own brother; now, his sons lie, in his name, in order to close the rift with their brother.
 But why do the brothers think that they have to lie? Let us return to Joseph’s revelation in Chapter 45, seventeen years earlier. We, of course, know that Joseph is sincere in wanting to save his brothers, but from their point of view, his motives are a bit murky. He asks if his father is still alive (45:3), then goes on to stress how God has placed his brothers’ lives in his hands, including the ominous (vv. 10-11): “You shall live in the land of Goshen, and you shall be close to me — you, your children, your grandchildren, your flocks, your cattle and all that is yours. I will sustain you there…” We readers know that Joseph is not pretending, but this is not self-evident to the brothers. Maybe he is genuine, maybe not. Maybe he actually wants to reconcile, but maybe Joseph is now debuting a new role: the forbearing philanthropist. Does the continued reference to their lives and the lives of their families being in his hands constitute reassurance, or a threat?
Why should Joseph harbor such a grudge? The brothers know the truth: the original plan was (37:20), "Now, let us go and kill him; we shall cast him in one of the pits and say that a wild animal has eaten him.” Does Joseph know that? He accuses them only of selling him, but it is impossible to know. Therefore (50:15), "Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, and they said, ‘It may be that Joseph will despise us and repay us all of the evil which we dealt him.” Also, the term "despise" is used in one place in the Torah outside of this portion (Gen. 27:41): "And Esau despised Jacob for the blessing which his father gave him, and Esau said in his heart: 'The days of mourning for my father are close, and then I will kill Jacob my brother.'" They refer to “all of the evil” which they had planned. For this reason, they offer the compromise of becoming his slaves. If “all of the evil” refers merely to slavery, there would be no reason to plead that their punishment be commuted to that; however, they know they deserve the death penalty.
If so, it's not just a little white lie, whether Jacob asked for anything before his death, there are some big black lies. But all of that is built upon one huge truth: that the sons of Jacob want reconciliation: the brothers want to apologize and Joseph want to save them. "How great is the power of peace" — it gives us the opportunity to get to the real truth, emotional truth, the truth of peace.

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