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Truth versus Falsehood

December 19, 2020

Yosef was accusing his brothers of being spies, and he told them that there is only one way they can change his mind:

ויאמֶר אֲלֵהֶ֖ם יוֹסֵ֑ף ה֗וּא אֲשֶׁ֨ר דִּבַּ֧רְתִּי אֲלֵכֶ֛ם לֵאמֹ֖ר מְרַגְּלִ֥ים אַתֶּֽם. בְּזֹ֖את תִּבָּחֵ֑נוּ חֵ֤י פַרְעֹה֙ אִם־תֵּצְא֣וּ מִזֶּ֔ה כִּ֧י אִם־בְּב֛וֹא אֲחִיכֶ֥ם הַקָּטֹ֖ן הֵֽנָּה. שִׁלְח֨וּ מִכֶּ֣ם אֶחָד֮ וְיִקַּ֣ח אֶת־אֲחִיכֶם֒ וְאַתֶּם֙ הֵאָ֣סְר֔וּ וְיִבָּֽחֲנוּ֙ דִּבְרֵיכֶ֔ם הַֽאֱמֶ֖ת אִתְּכֶ֑ם וְאִם־לֹ֕א חֵ֣י פַרְעֹ֔ה כִּ֥י מְרַגְּלִ֖ים אַתֶּֽם.

And Yosef to said to them (his brothers), “It’s just as I told you- you are spies! With this shall you be put to the test: you will leave here (Egypt) only if your youngest brothers come to this place. Send one of you to go and bring your brother, and the rest of you will remain confined here. Your words will be put to test, as to whether there is truth in you. Any if not, by Pharaoh’s life, you are spies!” (Bereishit 42:14-16)

The ultimatum was clear: bring Binyamin down to Egypt, or else you will never leave.

When the brothers returned to Yaakov and told him of this demand, he was refused to allow Binyamin to go. He would not consider risking losing his only other son from his beloved wife, Rachel. It took much begging, cajoling, and convincing until he finally relented.

As I read this, I wondered. At this point, the brothers have no idea that the viceroy of Egypt is their brother. As far as they knew, he had never met them before, and knew nothing about their family. So, why did they have to persuade Yaakov to allow them to bring Binyanim? Couldn’t they just have found someone else, paid him a few bucks, told him a little bit about their family, and presented him to the Egyptian viceroy as if he was their younger brother? Couldn’t they have found someone willing to do this for the right price? Why was Yosef so convinced that they would actually bring down his brother, Binyamin, and not some other stranger?

R. Ovadiah Seforno seems to address this question, as he writes, “בזאת תבחנו שאם אינכם אחים לא יסכן הקטן את עצמו לבא עמכם לשקר ולהיות בן מות עמכם, ‘With this shall you be put to the test,’ for if he (the one who comes down with you) is not your brother, he would not endanger himself to come with you falsely, and to end up being put to death with you. (Seforno Bereishit 42:15)” Money can buy a lot of things, but here their lives were on the line. If they brought down an imposter, and he was caught, surely this seemingly crazy viceroy would have him put to death! It would have been impossible to convince someone to do something this dangerous!

However, I heard a second, and quite profound, answer in the name of R. Chaim Kanievsky. R. Yisroel Reisman quoted that R. Chaim was asked the question above, and he replied simply that the brother knew better than to lie. But the questioner retorted: isn’t one allowed to lie if his life is at stake? Shimon was being held as a prisoner in a foreign land, and they need to save him! Wouldn’t lying have been permissible under these circumstances. To which R. Chaim brilliantly explained that of course lying would be permissible, but that doesn’t mean it would be wise. Because even if lying is technically permitted, it doesn’t work and it doesn’t last.

The Gemara teaches:

וּמַאי טַעְמָא שִׁיקְרָא אַחֲדָא כַּרְעֵיהּ קָאֵי, וֶאֱמֶת מְלַבַּן לַבּוֹנֵי — קוּשְׁטָא קָאֵי, שִׁיקְרָא לָא קָאֵי.

What is the reason that שקר (the letters of the word שקר, falsehood) all stand on one leg, and אמת (the letters of the word אמת, truth) all stand on a brick (a flat bottom)? Because truth stands firm, but falsehood does not stand. (Gemara Shabbat 104a)

Lying or cheating almost never works. We can come up with different justifications or excuses as to why, under certain circumstances, speaking falsely could technically not violate a prohibition. And that would still be missing the point. Yosef’s brothers understood that when being falsely accused, their best strategy was not to reciprocate with deception, but to reaffirm their commitment to honest and truth. Whether it’s in business, a relationship, or even one’s own mind, the lesson is clear: technicalities aside, truth persists and is almost always the best choice.

Good Shabbos!
Rabbi Fox

Sat, April 10 2021 28 Nisan 5781