D’var Torah for Parshat Va-y’hi–by Cathy Harris

D’var Torah for Parshat Va-y’hi
Genesis 47:28 – 50:26
November 12, 2013
Cathy Harris

The more I reflected on today’s parsha (Va-y’hi), the more I thought of the importance and prevalence of deception and misdirection in Torah.

Lies and deception in biblical times. In our times. In all times. 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 blurts out, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.” In other words, “it was her fault!”

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.” Helen Cross, in her book 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.

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.’”

“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.


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.

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 a polished mirror: “Do you see yourself? Are you happy with what you see?”

It reminds 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.” (The Essential Rabbi Nachman, Azamra, 2006)

We are all fighting personal battles. When we look into the faces of others, we need to hold that truth in our hearts. And we need to make the effort, every day, to truly show up for our own lives.

May we all keep working to learn from Torah, to show up every day of our lives, hard as it is, fully open to our shame, fear and vulnerability as well as our gratitude, blessings and our joys. May we make meaning from difficult moments, and may we help others to do the same. And let us say amen.