And they told Jacob their father, “Joseph is still alive; yes, he is ruler over the whole land of Egypt.” Jacob’s heart went numb, for he did not believe them. – Genesis 45:26

Jacob, who lied to his father, Isaac, to obtain his blessing saying, I am Esau, your first born (Gen. 24:19), is in turn lied to by his own sons. They lead him to believe that their brother Joseph, his favorite, is dead rather than admitting that they have sold him to Ishmaelite traders on their way to Egypt. Many years later, Jacob sends them to Egypt in search of food to relieve the famine in Canaan. There, the brothers are reunited with Joseph who has risen to the position of governor with responsibility for all food distribution. When they return and tell their father, Jacob does not believe them.

A midrash comments: Such is the punishment of the liar: even when he tells the truth, he is not believed. For so we find with respect to Jacob’s sons. It is written earlier when the brothers returned with only Joseph’s coat: And he recognized it and said, “It is the coat of my son” (Gen. 37:33). Therefore, in the end, even though they spoke the truth, he did not believe them. (Avot d’Rabbi Natan).

Judaism holds a negative view of lying and people who are not truthful in their communications. Among others, lying to one’s children, as a witness in a court proceeding, and in tax matters are specifically prohibited. There are a few exceptions. Rav Judah said in the name of Samuel: In the following three instances sages conceal the truth: In matters of a tractate [of Talmud], bed, and hospitality (BT Bava Metzia 23b-24a).

The first two are easily explained. When asked by another about knowledge of a difficult rabbinic text, a sage says, “No,” when one is of greater learnedness than the other. From this we learn the value of humility with regard to one’s accomplishments. A sage also says, “No,” when questioned casually about sexual activity. Here we learn the value of modesty with regard to intimate behavior. Under what circumstances is it permitted to lie about hospitality, knowing the high value Judaism places on welcoming visitors? A sage who has been a guest in another’s home says, “No,” when asked about the generosity of a particular host so that unworthy people will not pounce constantly on this host and consume all of the household’s wealth (Rashi). We learn the value of protecting the unsuspecting from potential predators.

Truthfulness, humility, modesty, and protecting others are Jewish values for everyone. Let’s make 2009 the year that we activate them in our lives and communities wherever we are.

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