Yaakov’s death was more than just a source of sorrow for his sons. It rekindled memories of their wayward behavior toward their brother, Yosef and fear that Yosef might use their father’s death as an opportunity to seek vengeance: “And Yosef’s brothers saw that their father was dead, and they said: ‘If Yosef bears resentment against you, he will surely pay us back for all the evil we caused him.’ And they charged Yosef, saying: ‘Your father left a charge before his death, saying: Thus, shall you say to Yosef, we beseech you, forgive, pray, the crime and the offence of your brothers, for evil they have caused you. And so now, forgive, pray, the crime of the servants of your father’s God.’ And Yosef wept when they spoke to him.” (Genesis 50:15-17)
This episode raised a number of questions for the rabbinic sages. Was there any indication that Yaakov knew the truth about how Yosef found himself in Egypt? And if so, did Yaakov actually say what Yosef’s brothers claimed he said? Most of the voices in the rabbinic tradition assert that Yaakov never found out about the true story of Yosef’s fate and that the brothers simply manufactured Yaakov’s charge to disarm any vengeance that Yosef might have in mind. I have chosen what I think is the most colorful (even outrageous!) midrashic presentation of this episode:
“Said Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel: Great is the significance of peace, for the Holy One Blessed be He wrote things in the Torah which never happened, only for the sake of peace… When Yaakov died, ‘And Yosef’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said: ‘If Yosef bears resentment against you.’ So what did they do? They went to Bilhah and said to her: ‘Go into Yosef and say to him: Your father left a charge before his death, saying: Thus, shall you say to Yosef, we beseech you, forgive, pray, the crime and the offence of your brothers.’ But Yaakov never commanded any of these words; rather the brothers said these words on their own. Said Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel: How much ink has been spilled; how many pens broken; and how many parchments lost; and how many children have been pressed to learn about something in the Torah that never happened? [This shows] how great is the Torah’s concern to maintain peace” (adapted from Tanhuma Parshat Tzav 7)
This midrash presumes that Yaakov did not know the truth of how Yosef found himself in Egypt and consequently, could not have given his sons a directive to deliver to Yosef. This means that what Yosef’s brothers told him was invented by them in order to prevent Yosef from doing something rash. (Note that in this version of the story the author has Bilhah deliver the “lie” rather than have the brothers deliver it directly!)
The author of this midrash is abundantly aware of its controversial nature and uses it as a means for examining how to contend with a situation where there is a conflict between two significant values, truth and peace. The story’s conclusion is that “truth” can be compromised for the sake of maintaining peace. This conclusion is not self-evident. Nevertheless, this episode found its way into the Talmud (Yevamot 65b) and from there was codified by Maimonides (Rambam) as law: “One should not change or alter one’s words, nor add or subtract except for the purpose of preserving peace.” (Mishnah Torah, Hilkhot Deot 5:7) And while I think there is much room for debate regarding the conflict between these two values, there is no denying where this midrash comes down on this question.