Thursday, December 18, 2008

Lying Liars and Parashat Vayeshev

Fraud and theft have been at the top of the news these past few weeks. Sadly, Orthodox Jews committed these crimes, causing unimaginable chillul hashem and unthinkable monetary losses. Every one of us either has or will be personally affected by the money that was acknowledged to have been stolen this past week. We all benefit from Jewish organizations: from Orot to your local Jewish Day School to the Jewish Federation in your city. No – Orot didn’t have money in the Madoff fund (not even close), but the trickle-down effect of a loss so massive will eventually affect the entire Jewish world.

We need to start to talk about honesty. And integrity. And we need to start reminding ourselves regularly that Orthodoxy isn’t only about מצוות בין אדם למקום – but equally about מצוות בין אדם לחברו – being honest in business, truthful with our friends and customers, and ethical in our daily lives.

Dishonesty rears its ugly head in many ways in Vayeshev. The brothers steal Yosef’s coat and sell him into slavery. Bad enough. But then, instead of owning up to their crime before their father, they lie to him and pretend that Yosef had been killed, causing him decades of anguish. Yosef isn’t entirely innocent either. The Torah tells that Yosef would bring דבתם רעה – “evil tales” about his brothers to Ya’akov. While Rashi says that Yosef reported every negative thing he could find about his brothers to Ya’akov, Ramban disagrees, saying, אבל מוציא דבה כסיל האומר שקר – “one who brings out dibbah is the fool who says falsehoods.” Put simply, according to Ramban Yosef lied too. He made up evil stories about his brothers to denigrate them in Ya’akov’s eyes.

Fraud finds its way into Yehudah’s life as well. In the famous story with Tamar, following the tragic deaths of his first two sons Er and Onan, Yehudah sends Tamar home telling her, “Go home to your father’s house and wait for Shelah to grow up. But don’t call me. I’ll call you.” Rashi (38:11) tells us clearly that Yehudah has no intention of calling her. In other words, he lies to her. Not to be outdone, Tamar gets back at him by dressing as a prostitute and seducing him by the side of the road. When the world discovers her pregnancy and sentences her to death for violating her marriage, she doesn’t rat him out. Rather, she leaves everything up to him. “Do you recognize this seal? Do you know whose ring this is? The owner of these items is the father of my child.”

Yehudah can easily say nothing. If he only chooses this option, all of his problems will disappear. Tamar will be dead leaving his son Shelah free from marry anyone but this black widow. Best of all, no one would know about his little dalliance at the roadside inn a few months back. What could be simpler than simply saying nothing? But it’s not so simple. Yehudah finally admits his lie in two words: צדקה ממני – “she is more righteous than I.”

What does he mean? Why doesn’t he just say צדקה – “she’s right”? How is she more right than he? And most importantly, why does he finally admit to his fraud?

Sforno explains that both Yehudah and Tamar lied. Yehudah realized that her lie wasn’t for her own benefit. Rather, she masqueraded as a prostitute to bring a child into the world. But he lied for his own personal benefit – to increase his own honor and achieve greater personal leverage. That’s why he said צדקה ממני. Her lie is better than mine. At least she didn’t lie for herself.

Even more importantly, Yehudah finally realized that the lying must end. The deceit and fraud that had become hallmarks of his family now threatened to destroy him – and all of them as well. The time had come to own up to his behavior – to tell the truth and accept the consequences. From this point forward Yehudah can becomes the de-facto leader of the family and takes his place in leading the family through the dangers of Egypt.

Fraud, lying, theft – sometimes they seem so easy. If you forgot to study for an important test, it’s so much easier to copy your neighbor’s paper than own up to the failing grade. Apparently, it’s much easier to take people’s money and give it to new investors as dividends than it is to actually find ways to make real money. But sooner or later it all catches up to us. Someone catches on. The cheating becomes obvious. Your investors ask for their money back. And then cleaning up the mess, dealing with the consequences, saying צדקה ממני – becomes that much harder to do.

Shabbat Shalom.