Sign In Forgot Password

Parshat Vayechi 5782     December 18, 2021 

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

Shabbat Shalom,

     The parsha this week is called “Vayechi” which means, “and he lived” referring to Jacob who is now living in Egypt. But the Torah, when it uses any form of the verb “to live” in a title, it generally means that someone is about to die. And true to form, both Jacob and Joseph die in this week’s parsha

     This is not the Torah expressing a lie, this is what we call a euphemism. The Torah considers death not to be a good title for a chapter, so it uses life, to indicate that it is not the end of life that is important but how the life we have is lived. We saw the same thing many chapters ago in Parshat “Hiyye Sarah” it talks about the life of Sarah, but it is the title of the chapter where she dies.

     But there is a glaring lie in our Parsha. It is near the end, after the death of Jacob. Joseph’s brothers come to Joseph and tell him that Jacob, before he died, wanted Joseph to forgive his brothers for what they had done to him, many years ago, when they sold him into slavery. As far as we can tell, Joseph never told his father how he came to be in Egypt. We would think that when Jacob listed all the mistakes his other sons had made in their lives when he blesses them on his death bed, that this would be a pretty prime target for his anger. But he says not a word. Probably because he never knew.

     But this lie is important to the story of Joseph and his brothers and important to the entire book of Genesis. Genesis starts with one brother killing the other and asking, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” That is a terrible question and for the entire book of Genesis, God is looking for a better answer. He does not find Noah’s sons as better brothers. Isaac and Ishmael are not the best of brothers. Jacob and Esau are the poster boys of brothers who hated each other. And at first, we think that the way the brothers hate Joseph that we are in for the same story.

     But with this lie, Joseph rises to the occasion. He knows his brothers are lying. He knows Jacob never told the brothers that Joseph should forgive them. But Joseph still forgives his brothers. Yes, they meant to do him evil, but they could not know that they were doing what God wanted them to do. Joseph had to be sold into slavery in Egypt so he could rise to the court of Pharoah and save his family from famine. They meant it for evil, but God meant it for good. With this act of brotherhood, God finally finds the kinds of brothers he is looking for; brothers who are a keeper for each other. Now Genesis can end and a new chapter in the family history can begin.

    If this age in which we live could have a title, I can think of many candidates. The Age of COVID. The Age of Partisanship. The Age of Climate Change. The Age of the Rise of Secularism. The Age of Technology. All are clever ideas. But if we were to follow our biblical example, these times would eventually be called the Age of Alternative Truth.

     Truth has taken a severe beating in our times. Once upon a time, long ago, there were things called Truth and Facts that stood against Opinions and Propaganda. Kellyann Conway may have coined the phrase, “alternate facts” but the idea has been around for a long time. Ever since P.T. Barnum first said “There is a sucker born every minute” we can trace, right through modern history, the words that were spoken just to inflate an ego, to elect a politician and to separate a person from their hard-earned money. People who used to do such things, they were once called, “con artists” “grifters” “sellers of snake oil” and they were often run out of town when the people found out they had been cheated. Ponzi schemes promised wealth but only to those who got in early. The late Bernie Madoff was the most successful of these kinds of liars, convincing people to invest in something that just did not exist.

     Maybe it is the rise of social media that makes lying so common today. On social media anyone can say anything without fear of reprisal. It only takes a handful of people to drown out the voices of common sense and truth. Truth has become whatever we say it is. Even if it has no basis in any kind of fact. Who needs facts? We can make up our own “facts” and these are just as true as your facts.

     And after all, what really does “true” mean? Science has little truth. There are only hypotheses that are being evaluated. Anyone in science can suggest any outcome. And if the evidence does not support it, it only means that there is more testing needed, or that the tests that disprove it were flawed, or that the situation has changed and now those tests are useless.

     COVID is a good example of this kind of invalidation of the truth. When we didn’t know what this virus was capable of, scientists were cautious. Others say they could not make up their minds. When science could see that this was a deadly disease, others would say that they were just trying to frighten people. When science would say that we had to wear masks and stand apart from each other, others said that they were being too cautious. Vaccines that saved lives became sinister plots to plant microchips into the arms of all Americans, that they were unsafe and untested even if they had been successfully used on millions of people around the world. Breakthrough cases “proved” that the vaccines did not work. Today, the doctors and scientist agree, that there are no more reasons that could convince those who have fallen for these alternate explanations to get vaccinated. The death toll from COVID continues to grow, with those who are unvaccinated sixteen times more likely to die than those who are properly up to date on their vaccines. But the liars say that Omicron is a plot by Democrats to sell their vaccines and force people to wear masks.

     Then there is Anti Semitism, a series of lies that refuse to die. It seems to me that it does not really matter why one hates Jews. It only is important to hate. Once you hate Jews, any reason is just as good as another. This is why this kind of hatred is so hard to destroy. Once the Protocols of the Elders of Zion were published, and the secret plot “revealed,” that Jews wanted to take over the world, then how can you convince someone that they are being “conned”? They already know the real secret and anything we say is just a lie.

     As the Jefferson Airplane wrote in their lyrics:

     When the truth is found to be lies and all the joy within you dies

     It is not just Anti Semitism. It is also Racism, Islamophobia, Sexism, Ageism, anti-Immigration, and all other forms of scapegoating. Once you hate others, one excuse is as good as another. Sometimes this hatred is expressed in Culture Wars, but most often it is just expressed in lies that “everyone” knows is true. There is, after all, a vast conspiracy that is out to destroy our way of life.

     Free speech depends on there being an open market of ideas where the good ideas always rise to the top. That can’t happen now in our world. We create false equivalencies between the truth and lies. In the name of being “fair and impartial” we need to hear from both sides of any argument no matter if the other argument has no basis in fact and it is believed only by a small band of true believers.

     It was in the 1930’s when the idea of a “Big Lie” came into vogue. With radio and then television, a small band of people could tell a lie that could be heard by vast numbers of people. On television, if a million people heard you tell your lie, even if only one percent believed it, you still had ten thousand new people to join your cause. Today, the slander and libel laws don’t apply to social media and to the web. You can publish anything you like and if it proves to be a lie, it doesn’t matter, it will live forever on the internet and it is impossible to stop the spread.

     Now that we have perfected the lie so that nobody can tell anymore what is true and what is false, what can we do? Is democracy, which depends on truth, doomed? Can we only trust an autocrat to tell us the truth, even if it is her or his own version of the truth? When the very values of society have been corrupted so that there is no longer any reason to tell the truth and to avoid lies. Where are we supposed to go? What are we supposed to do?

     There is a truth that is above what we call truth. It is Truth with a capital T. For us, that “T” stands for Torah. Religion, real faith, is so opposed to lies that it often is the first casualty in the cultural wars. God has to be a lie, Torah has to be a lie, Religion is an opiate, a drug to dull the mind. But Religion is not a lie and no matter how many times it is denigrated, it comes back because it is the foundation upon which truth can stan;, it is the soil where truth can grow.

     Our Parsha teaches that Death is not an enemy; it is a natural part of living and what is important is how you live your life. Our Parsha teaches that what is important is for brothers to forgive, and to look out for each other. And that they do not need to lie to love each other in spite of their failures. Our Parsha teaches that a person can be wrong, but one mistake does not cancel out their entire life, that they can still be a lesson in living.

     Torah teaches us that there is only one God, so there is only one truth, and although we may struggle sometimes to discover that truth, Torah gives us the rod to measure the truth. The words of the prophets are not “written on subway walls and tenement halls,” they are written in books that have survived for centuries because they have been unabashed about telling truth to power. The creation story may not be an accurate description of the beginning of the world, but it is accurate when it says that nothing in this universe is God, it is all God’s creation.

     But Torah also demands that we study its words. That we learn its lessons from teachers in every generation who brought the force of their great minds to find truth in the words of our scripture. Any clergy will tell you that “The Devil can quote scripture to serve his purpose” but we can learn, for ourselves to find what is right and true in Torah if we sit at the side of scholars who can help us understand the Truth in its words.

     And finally, we have to make the truth of the Torah, our truth. We can withstand the Pharaohs of the world, the Lavans of the world, the Jezebels of the world, and the pagan priests of the world as long as we stand firm with the truth that we know. It is a struggle to believe when everyone around you is yelling that you are wrong. Truth is demanding work. We have to study, we have to consider, we have to THINK and not let someone else do the thinking for us.

     My all-time favorite poem is by Rudyard Kipling, it is called simply, “IF” and the first two stanzas are what we need to hear today to break through the noise, the lies and grifters:

If you can keep your head when all about you

Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,

But make allowance for their doubting too;

If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,

Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,

Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,

And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;

If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster

And treat those two impostors just the same;

If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken

Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,

Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,

And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

     This is not an easy task. Truth is never easy. Faith is never easy. Believing in the Good is never easy. But it is what we are called upon to do in this day and age. We will not always be right. But we can try. We do not have to believe lies just because everyone tells us that they are truth. When everyone else is losing their heads and blaming us for what is wrong with the world, we can still keep our heads and wits about us and stand firm for what we believe to be true: One God, one humanity, the sacredness of life, and that truth is the foundation of the universe.

     The world may seem to be a sad place with all that is going wrong. It is our job to go out every day and try to rebuild our world with all that we have. “We are not required to complete the task, but we are not free from doing our part. That is quote is from Pirke Avot, that is our Tradition, that is, part of our Torah. That is part of our Truth – capital T.

     We can strengthen each other for the task at hand, and we can study Torah to know what we must do, but most of all, we have to believe, in Truth, in Justice, and in God. With God’s help we can bring to this world of lies, and eternal truth as we say…. Amen and Shabbat Shalom

Tue, February 7 2023 16 Shevat 5783