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Chancellor's Parashah Commentary

Parashat Va-y'hi 5758
Genesis 47:28 - 50:26
January 10, 1998     12 Tevet 5758

Ismar Schorsch is the chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary.

Sometimes the point of a passage hinges on what is missing rather than on what is said. I find this to be the case in the final exchange between Joseph and his brothers. The family has just returned to Egypt after burying Jacob in the cave of Machpelah in Hebron, and the brothers are overcome with fear of Joseph's intentions. With their father gone, might Joseph now seek to punish them for what they had done to him years before? Was it only Jacob's presence that had stayed his vengeful hand? The Torah uncharacteristically tells us what ran through their minds: "When Joseph's brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, 'What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrong that we did him!' (Genesis 50:15)"

The feeling is natural enough, though Joseph's generous treatment of his family once reunited gave no reason to suspect that he still harbored a grudge. The Torah then relates what the brothers did to avert such a feared act of revenge. "So they sent this message to Joseph, 'Before his death your father left this instruction: So shall you 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.' And Joseph was in tears as they spoke to him (Genesis 50:16-17)."

The brothers took cover, in other words, behind Jacob's last testament. His will from beyond the grave, they hoped, would keep the peace. But their defense is problematic because it rests on the assumption that Jacob knew how Joseph ended up in Egypt in the first place. Yet we have no trace in the Torah that Jacob ever inquired or was ever told how the rupture came about. Of course we can assume that during the seventeen years that Jacob lived in Egypt the truth did emerge. But it is unlikely that the Torah would have passed over such a necessary resolution of family conflict in silence.

The midrash on this passage, alluded to by Rashi, also is predicated on the view that Jacob never learned the truth. According to Rabbi Elazar the son of Rabbi Shimon, the behavior of the brothers establishes the principle that the value of peace takes precedence over the value of truth. In fact, Jacob neither knew the nature of Joseph's fate nor uttered a deathbed plea to him to spare his brothers. In their anxiety, the brothers fabricated the whole episode to protect the fragility of a restored peace. What strikes me about Rabbi Elazar's hierarchy of values is just how much truth he is prepared to sacrifice for the sake of peace. The brothers would have Joseph believe that they had, somewhere along the line, informed their father of their crime and that he had reacted with a plea to Joseph for compassion. But the falsehood is of little consequence. Rabbi Elazar embodies the conviction of the pragmatist for whom no ideological commitment can override the ultimate value of peace. Nor is his voice marginal. Indeed, there is no subject on which the Rabbis collectively can wax more eloquently than on the subject of peace, perhaps because their exegetical world abounds with legitimate disputation and often bitter conflict. They find other instances in the Torah where truth is compromised for the sake of peace. When Sarah overhears the divine messenger foretelling to Abraham that in a year's time Sarah would give birth to a son, she laughs to herself, "Now that I am withered, am I to have enjoyment - with my husband so old (Genesis 18:12)?" Yet when God gently rebukes Abraham for Sarah's incredulity, God softens her skeptical words to avoid sowing conflict: "Why did Sarah laugh saying 'Shall I in truth bear a child, old as I am [thus sparing Abraham's feelings]' (Genesis 18:13)?"

More broadly, rabbinic literature preserves a profusion of declamations as to the supreme value of peace. The Mishna concludes lyrically by singling out peace as the most effective way of attaining divine blessing, witness the way Scripture equates strength with peace: "May the Lord grant strength to His people; may the Lord bestow on His people shalom, well-being (Psalm 29:11)." Using the same verse, Rabbi Shimon ben Yohai declares that all God's blessings are subsumed under peace. The priestly blessing (Numbers 6:24-26) culminates on peace ("The Lord bestow His favor upon you and grant you peace"), prompting Rabbi Elazer Hakapar to define it as the seal of all blessings. Conversely, he avows that even if the people of Israel are mired in idolatry, as long as they live in peace with each other, they will stay out of harm's way.

Finally, the daily morning Amida (the silent devotion) amplifies (or replaces) the recitation of the priestly blessing in the repetition with a crescendo for peace: "Grant peace to the world, with happiness and blessing, grace, love and mercy for us and for all your people Israel." The string of six blessings (from peace to mercy) are designed to replicate the six blessings of the priestly blessing.

There is nothing like a trip to Israel to remind one just how dismissive we have become of peace. Increasingly ghettoized and without a national consensus or effective leadership, the country is overrun by ideologues ready to devalue peace, among Jews and with Israel's neighbors, for the sake of one or another specious greater good. But in the rabbinic scale of values, peace alone is the greatest good, the key to individual growth and national destiny, for which all else may be compromised. According to the rabbis we are not obliged to perform a mitzva till it comes our way, but peace we are supposed to go out and pursue pro-actively, which is why Scripture states: "Seek peace and pursue it (Psalm 34:15)," that is, "seek to achieve it at home and pursue it abroad."

Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,

Ismar Schorsch


The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch's commentary on Parashat Va-y'hi are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.