Parshas Vayigash — The Battlefront of Truth and Falsehood

And Yosef harnessed his chariot and went up to meet Yisroel, his father, in Goshen. [Yosef] appeared before [his father], fell upon his neck and wept profusely (Bereishis 46:29).

Was it only Yosef who wept? What of Yaakov, who had never recovered from the loss of his beloved son in the 22 years he believed Yosef to be dead? Why was he not moved to tears?

Rashi offers the explanation of the sages, who tell us that Yaakov was reciting the words of Shema, the most profound articulation of kabbolas ol malchus Shomayim – accepting the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven. According to the Maharal, Yaakov conducted himself in the way of the truly righteous, translating this moment of supreme joy into an expression of service to his Creator. At the moment he is reunited with his son, Yaakov found a unique opportunity to reestablish his connection with HaShem, a connection that had been impaired by his years of unrelieved mourning.

But what of Yosef? Why did he not respond as his father did, by expressing his closeness with HaShem rather than with a display of filial emotion?

Sfas Emes suggests that for Yaakov, the ish emes – the man whose essence was defined by pure and unadulterated truth – any response other than turning personal joy into an expression of divine service would have been unnatural and insincere.

But the personality of Yosef was entirely different. In contrast to his father, for whom any contradiction between his inner and outer personas would be inconsistent with his fundemantal nature, Yosef conducted his life by hiding his inner self behind a façade wholly separate from his true essence.

As a man possessing a pure and righteous character, Yosef ruled Mitzrayim, a nation known for its moral corruption. As a man of spirituality and austerity, Yosef directed the material survival and enrichment of the most powerful nation on earth. In contrast to his father, here identified by the name Yisroel, which characterizes the manifestation of truth that is both transparent and self-evident, Yosef lived a life of hiddenness, in which apparent inconsistency often belies a far deeper truth that remains unseen.

The kabbalists refer to our world as Olam HaSheker – the World of Falsehood. It is a world in which physical reality conceals the true spiritual nature of the universe, and in which we can easily lose our way by virtue of the misleading signposts that point us down the road toward vanity and futility. From our patriarch Yaakov/Yisroel we learn to appreciate genuine emes, the spiritual truth that defines our purpose and our destination. From Yosef, however, we learn an indispensable strategy that makes it possible for us to reach that destination.

Shlomo HaMelech tells us that there is a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; there is a time to keep silent and a time to speak. The knowledge of when not to express inner truth, and the ability to keep one’s true feelings internal when circumstances demand circumspection – these are essential to spiritual survival in a world of falsehood and deceit. This does not mean that we must learn the tactics of deception ourselves, but that we recognize when the crooked ways of a crooked will not allow us to express absolute truth publicly.

The most basic laws of loshon hara prohibit us not primarily from slander, but from hurtful truths. The sages even warn us against articulating all a person’s praise in his presence, lest we embarrass him or cause him to become arrogant. What is true may not always be what is proper.

By the same token, imagine the effect upon Yaakov if his son had not expressed unrestrained emotion upon their meeting. Indeed, Yosef was sincerely moved to tears. But to suggest that his natural reaction would have been other than Yaakov’s, that he did not desire with equal fervor to translate his personal joy into divine service, is to misunderstand Yosef completely. Rather, Yosef recognized that, under the circumstances, his own personal expression of divine service required him to display the outward response that would be most consoling to his father. His inner self directed his outer self in a fashion appropriate to the external conditions in which he found himself.

In many ways, Yosef’s form of service is far more demanding than Yaakov’s. How much easier is it to be forthright than to constantly engage the battlefront of externality, walking the line between propriety and insincerity? But this is what life in a complex and physical world requires from us, until the arrival of the messianic era releases us from the hidden nature of Yosef and allows us to embrace the purity of Yisroel.

As we approach the eve of the messianic era, the struggle becomes ever more acute. When we look upon the physical battles of our times, the military wars against aggressors who have no interest in peace, and the diplomatic wars against appeasers who paint aggressors and defenders alike with the broad brush of moral equivalence, we find ample evidence of the duality intrinsic to the world we live in. We look for truth and justice from the world around us and instead find ourselves condemned for our own forthrightness. We are threatened with extinction and chastised when we fight for our survival.

It is Yosef who shows us the way: to hold fast to our inner selves, to hold firm to inner truth, to not shout truth from the rooftops but live lives of quiet resolution, always wary of the dangers that threaten to steer us too far to the left or to the right, never losing hope in our own potential to rise above the deception and falsehood of the world around us and find our way safely home.

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