The journalist and historian Carl Bernstein wryly remarks that certain leaders “have a difficult relationship with the truth.” What good is the truth if it angers people, gets you in trouble, or makes it harder to pursue a just cause? The truth has not always been the friend of Joseph, the protagonist of this week’s Torah portion, Miketz. He has a difficult relationship with it. It’s not that he’s in the habit of doing a disservice to truth, to which Bernstein was alluding. In Joseph’s case, it’s that the truth has repeatedly done a disservice to him.
When Joseph brings negative reports about his brothers to his father, call it whistle-blowing, snitching, or what you will, the outcome is that Joseph’s truth telling prompts others hatred of him. When he shares his dreams with his father and his brothers, they mistake truth for ambition and arrogance and react defensively. The result of sharing the inner truth of his dreams is that Joseph is literally sold out, abandoned and betrayed. When Potiphar’s wife falsely accuses him of assault no amount of truth can keep him from being cast into jail. That was the past.
Now in Miketz, Joseph has another meeting with truth. He can either tell Pharaoh only what he believes the ruler wants to hear or he can “tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth” and take his chances. Once again, Joseph decides that this is a moment that calls for the truth. This time his words are heard by a receptive audience. Pharaoh does not “kill the messenger”, but rather rewards him. Despite having a difficult relationship with the truth, Joseph is determined that his job is to speak it. What other people do with the truth is on them. His choice runs counter to his experiences. He doesn’t use his prior horrible experiences to guide him, or to serve as an excuse to abandon truth.
Let us determine to live our lives in such a way that the same may be said of us. Fear of what might happen to us does not allow us to depart from our core commitments and values. We don’t preach the importance of truth and justice because they are easily achieved, but because achieving them is extremely difficult. Not only did Joseph’s truth telling lift him out of jail, it ultimately saved thousands, if not millions, of lives. Joseph’s honesty about years of plenty followed by years of famine prevented the populace of Egypt and surrounding areas from starving to death.
World events of the past few months, especially the last few days, have placed us at a moment of truth. Are we going to allow suspicion and terror compromise our religious and moral values, or will we find the determination to do what is right because it is right? Will we, like Joseph, tell truth to power, or will we cling to power by sacrificing the moral integrity of truth? Are we going to make a real effort to confront difficult truths, or are we simply going to utter weak excuses? A moment of truth stands before us. As we near the end of our eight day celebration of Hannukah, let us be mindful of the courage and dedication it takes to create and maintain a society that stands on principle rather than kneeling to power.