The story is told of a young man who came to the Chatam Sofer requesting approbation from the great rabbi for his scholarly book. Rabbi Sofer read the book and responded, “I don’t mind when you quote my words as your own, but please, don’t put your words in my mouth!”
I always wondered whether Joseph’s brothers were actually quoting Jacob when, upon retuning to Egypt from Jacob’s funeral, they told Joseph, “Your father gave orders before his death, saying: Thus shall you say to Joseph, ‘O please forgive the spiteful deed of your bothers and their sin for they have done you evil.’” Were they putting their words in Jacob’s mouth? Would Jacob have approved of a lie after they had lied to him for so many years?
The Talmud (Yebamot 65b) and Midrash (Tanchuma 7) describe this as an instance of when one may alter the truth for the sake of peace. Rashi explains that they dispatched the sons of Bilhah, with whom Joseph had always been very friendly, to tell him this story about Jacob’s secret instructions. After the emissaries delivered their message, the rest of the brothers came to him.
Let’s picture the scene: The sons of Bilhah, Joseph’s erstwhile “friends,” who did not raise a hand to protect or save him, take advantage of their friendship to “alter the truth” and convey this secret message from Jacob. Joseph, who spent a great deal of private time with his father, and had never heard a word from his father regarding his 22 year disappearance, “believes’ his friendly brothers enough so that the remaining brothers can approach him.
I suspect that the message was actually, “This is what your father would have wanted us to do.” They carefully listened to the words of reproach intermingled with Jacob’s blessings, and they inferred that Jacob wanted them to address the issue.
Bilhah’s sons approached first as friends in order to acknowledge that they failed him as friends. They were not preparing the way for the remaining brothers; they were addressing their own specific sin against Joseph. The entire extended family was dependent on Joseph’s friendship and love in order to eat. The foremost issue on their minds was their failure as friends.
Joseph immediately understood that they were not directly quoting Jacob, as Bilhah’s sons expected. The most obvious issue was not the most important. They would eventually discuss his sale into slavery, but they understood that they first had to address everyone’s failure as brothers, and Bilhah’s sons as friends.
It takes great skill and courage to apologize, but it takes great wisdom to apologize correctly and discuss the issues underlying the obvious. Bilhah’s sons, and all of his brothers approached Joseph with unbelievable wisdom; they ‘altered the truth” to admit that they lied to Jacob. They approached in stages, dealing with all the layers of their sin against Joseph.
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