Parshat Va-y’hi: A Mash Up Hyper-Pluralism, Righteous Justice and the Canon – by Cathy Harris

A Mash Up:
Hyper-Pluralism, Righteous Justice and the Canon of Parshat Va-y’hi
(Genesis 47:28 – 50:26)
Cathy Harris

When we look at the founding of our own United States, we see how clever James Madison was in touting “pluralism” as a demographic ideal while assuring the founders that it would tip the playing field towards landowners. Madison’s solution to class conflict, “hyper-pluralism”, was to make it difficult for the majority to find a common interest or to act successfully on it.

“Extend the sphere,” Madison writes in Federalist 10, “and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens . . . .A rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project, will be less apt to pervade the whole body of the Union than a particular member of it . . .” (Hamilton, Madison, and Jay 1961, pp. 83 84).

Madison explained: “The only remedy is to enlarge the sphere, and thereby divide the community into so great a number of interest and parties, that in the first place a majority will not be likely at the same moment to have a common interest separate from that of the whole or of the minority; and in the second place, that in case they should have such an interest, they may not be apt to unite in the pursuit of it (Farrand 1937, v. 1, pp. 135 36).”

When there are an array of options, what happens when there is an ethical way and an unethical way? A just course and an unjust course? What happens in regard to a plethora of pluralism then? When it bumps against a higher morality? And whose morality would that be? Just something to think about as we explore Parsha Va-y’hi, Genesis 47:28 – 50:26 and the deceits and manipulation that have tripped us up through the ages.

The truth hurts…we all lie
When God came to call on Adam and Eve after they ate fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, Adam knew he’d messed up. So, he blurted out, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.” In other words, “she offered me the wrong choice.”

At a guess, each of us, at one time or another, has embellished a narrative, avoided saying the plain truth or convinced others that we acted for one reason when in fact our motives were quite different. Can any of us say that we have never lied? Never tweaked the truth? Never deceived by omission? Why do we do it? I am proposing that we engage in these behaviors to hide ourselves from deep vulnerability and shame.

Jane Austin once reflected, “Seldom, very seldom, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure. Seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised or a little mistaken.” Author Helen Cross, in My Summer of Love, described a character this way: “Her words were like tinfoil, they shone and they covered things up.” While speaking the truth is straightforward (though not easy), there are many ways to lie. Essayist Michel de Montaigne pondered this fact: “If falsehood had, like truth, but one face only, we should then take for certain the contrary to what the liar says. But the reverse of truth has a hundred thousand forms, and a field indefinite, without bound or limit.”

Torah, our sacred narrative of a nation and its individual people, describes many forms of deception. For example, Jacob/Israel’s life is full of such acts. As a young man, he finagled his brother Esau’s birthright and plotted with his mother to steal Esau’s paternal blessing. As a married man, his wife Rachel stole her father’s chief idol and lied to him when he demanded it back. Lies litter the landscape of our Torah and all of Tanach and are deeply imbedded in our fabricated selves.

When we tell the truth, we don’t have to remember anything
But there is more. Torah teaches us that we can, at any time, change for the good. It’s in fact a livelong work of the heart, to open ourselves to vulnerability and to painful truths. Witness the following scene from today’s parsha:

“Who are these?” Israel asks his son. ‘They are my sons, whom God has given me here.’

‘Bring them up to me,’ he said, ‘that I may bless them.’

Now Israel’s eyes were dim with age; he could not see. So Joseph brought them close, and Israel kissed them and embraced them.

Israel stretched out his right hand and laid it on Ephraim’s head, though he was the younger, and his left hand on Manasseh’s head. When Joseph saw that, he took hold of his father’s hand to move it. ‘Not so, Father,’ Joseph said to his father, ‘for the other is the first-born’.

‘I know, my son, I know. He too shall become a people. Yet his younger brother shall be greater than he, and his offspring shall be plentiful enough for nations.’ Thus he put Ephraim before Manasseh.”

There is a lightness to speaking truth, while lies are such a burden. Yet, we see them again and again in Torah. There are Joseph’s brothers telling their father that Joseph must have perished by tooth and claw. And Potiphar’s wife cried, “rape!” when Joseph turned aside her sexual advances. And Joseph himself, after burying his anger and shame for years, slips money and his favorite goblet into his brothers’ packs, calling them thieves. And, at their father’s funeral, Joseph’s brothers, realizing that Jacob is no longer alive to protect them, tells Joseph, through a messenger, that “Your father commanded before his death to tell you, ‘Please, forgive your brothers’ transgression.’”

What if Abraham had come clean with Isaac and Sarah?
“Take your son, your only son, the son you love, take Isaac and go to the land of Moriah; bring him up there as a free-will offering on one of the hills which I will name to you.” This epic story could have played out with honesty and integrity. Abraham could have told his family the truth.

Perhaps something along these lines:

“My son, Isaac, it sounds crazy, but God told me to sacrifice you. Since I trust God and he also told me that you’ll be a great nation, I believe all will be well. On the other hand, unless God stops me, I have to do this. It’s killing me, but it’s God we’re talking about here. Sarah, I know you’ll despise me for this, but God told me to sacrifice our son, my favorite one, and I have to obey. I believe he will spare Isaac in the end, but I can’t count on it. I’m devastated too. Let us have faith.” It’s just a thought.

Did God want Abraham to lie to Sarah and Isaac? Maybe he was supposed to be honest. God never says, “don’t tell them what you’re doing.” Is God messing with Abraham? And there are other examples where God appears to use deception and misdirection on both large and small scales.

We could, if so inclined, fashion an argument that deception and misdirection are part and parcel of human cultures because we are fashioned after God, and, God, well, you get the idea.

Very. Awkward.

Everywhere in Torah, relationships are messy and confused, roiled by lies, deception and buried truths. Just like always. Just like today. We dissemble with family and friends, colleagues and casual acquaintances. We withhold information that can change lives, sometimes without even saying, “There are things I just can’t tell you.” When we convince ourselves of lies and hide from painful truths, we don’t know who we are anymore. We lose track of what we truly think, feel and believe. This makes it difficult to be our best selves, to be fully present in our relationships. And, through example, Torah teaches us this.

Justice, justice…are we there yet?
Torah is not a dusty tome of ancient power struggles and archaic rituals. Nor is it a laundry list of Godly instructions and commandments. No, it is a gorgeous narrative of human betrayal, infidelity, grace and courage. It is about our ancestors, and it is about you and me.

It is also a polished mirror. “Who do you see staring back at you? And are you happy with what you see?” As Mary Oliver has urgently inquired of each of us, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

Tortuous words, omissions and revisions of reality remind each of us that we have twisted our words and been twisted by others. We have cut our friends with the knife of deceit and been wounded ourselves.

And, now, look again. Torah is more than a litany of ancestral mistakes. It is a joy and a journey. It is an education. It is a tall cool drink on a hot day. We walk, stop, quench our thirst, within a community, but each of our paths is deeply personal. As you travel it, remember the famous words of Reb Nachman of Bratslav: “If you believe that you can damage, then believe that you can repair. If you believe that you can harm, then believe that you can heal.”

Brené Brown has said, “Vulnerability…is about the willingness to show up and be seen in our lives…and…those are the most powerful meaning-making moments of our lives even if they don’t go well. I think they define who we are. And we become aware of others’ struggles. We recall those beautiful words attributed to Philo: ‘Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.’”

May we all keep studying and learning from Torah, showing up every day of our lives, embracing our fears and our shame along with our most joyous blessings. And may we make meaning from difficult moments and help others to do the same. Amen.