Thursday, January 2, 2020

Fake News and Real News

Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery and tell their father that a wild beast killed him. But Joseph soon manages to turn their evil act into good. He becomes ruler of Egypt, second only to Pharaoh. His intelligence and prescience, in particular his ability to interpret dreams, help him prepare Egypt for the impending famine. The Egyptians spend seven years storing food and when the famine arrives they have plenty to spare.

His brothers are forced to come to Egypt in search of food. Joseph gives them enough to eat and even more to take back home. He does not reveal his identity. He implements a careful plot in which he frames his brothers and accuses them of stealing to see if they will once again sell their brother Benjamin into slavery. They do not. Joseph reveals his identity. Amid tears, he stammers, “I am Joseph. Is my father still well?”

The brothers are dumbfounded. The revelation that their brother Joseph who they sold into slavery is now a powerful ruler stuns them. Joseph forgives his brothers and they are reconciled. He instructs them to go back to their father, Jacob, and tell him that he is still alive. Joseph wants the entire family to live together in Egypt. “The brothers went up from Egypt and came to their father Jacob in the land of Canaan. And they told him, ‘Joseph is still alive; yes, he is ruler over the whole land of Egypt.’ His heart stopped, for he did not believe them.” (Genesis 45)

Jacob’s heart stops when first hearing the news. The news nearly kills him. Some translations suggest it should instead read, “His heart went numb.” The Torah’s intention is definitive. The news is impossible for Jacob to comprehend. To believe it would mean that his other sons lied to him so many years ago.

At that time, when Jacob first heard their tale about Joseph’s fate, namely that he was killed by wild beasts, Jacob nearly dies. He says, “I will go down mourning to my son in Sheol (the place of the dead).” Now Jacob dies once again after hearing the shattering news. His son is alive.

His sons lied.

The Rabbis comment: “This is the fate of a liar; even when telling the truth, a liar is not believed. (Avot d’Rabbi Nathan 30)

I wonder. Can habitual liars ever be believed?

We live in an age when we are unable to even agree upon the facts. Each side of the political divide adheres to a different set of truths. They accuse the other of telling lies. Our hearts grow increasingly numb to truth. We remain trapped in between, unable to discuss, and even debate, solutions to the many problems, and dilemmas, we face because we are unable to agree on the underlying truths upon which any discussion, and reasoned debate, must begin. Instead we spend our time, and our energy, arguing about what is fake and what is real. Our debates spin around who is lying and who is telling the truth.

How can we navigate ourselves, and our nation, back to truth?

I continue to weep for Jacob. He endured so many years mourning for his beloved son. After discovering that Joseph lives, he must endure the knowledge that his other sons are liars. And yet, after some time, “the spirit of their father Jacob revived.” And he speaks:

“Enough!

My son Joseph is still alive! I must go and see him before I die.” (Genesis 45)

Truth endures.

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