"As we told my lord [Yosef], we have an elderly father and a young
[brother] who is a child of his old age. The boy’s brother is dead."
Rashi explains that the brothers thought Yosef was alive – so much so that
when they first came to Egypt they searched the city to see if they could
find him. If so, how could Yehudah, the progenitor of the royal family of
Israel, make a statement that was so obviously untrue? Yehudah claimed
Yosef was dead simply because he was afraid (1). Yehudah feared that if
he admitted that this brother was still alive, the Viceroy of Egypt would
demand that they bring him to Egypt as well. Their inability to comply
with his demand would have put them in a very dangerous situation indeed.
Since Yehuda thought that his life was in danger, he was permitted to say
that Yosef was dead (2).
We often find ourselves caught off guard and we have no time to think.
Under such high-pressure circumstances we may feel tempted to tell “a
little white lie.” At times we may fabricate details in order to cover up
something that is uncomfortable to reveal. In the final analysis, even
Yehudah, who was permitted to act as he did, suffered more embarrassment
than he would have had he through speaking the truth. This is not
uncommon; often our “little white lies” lead to more problems than we
would have experienced had we spoken the truth.
Once when a very wealthy man visited the Chofetz Chaim, the man told him
that they had met before, and that he was sure the Chofetz Chaim
remembered who he was. The Chofetz Chaim responded that he received many
visitors, and he could not honestly say that he remembered everyone who
came to visit him. One of the Chofetz Chaim’s students was standing with
him at the time, and tried to convince the wealthy man that the Chofetz
Chaim in fact did remember him, but was not admitting it because of his
great humility. When the student made this claim, the Chofetz Chaim
asserted that he did not remember who the man was.
After the man left, the student apologized to the Chofetz Chaim for having
intruded, and explained that he had feared that since this man was a
patron of the yeshivah, the fact that the Chofetz Chaim did not remember
him might affect his donations to the yeshivah in the future. The student
did not want the yeshivah to suffer financial loss. The Chofetz Chaim
responded that the Torah’s prohibition against speaking sheker is all-
inclusive. The Torah makes no exception to this halachah in cases which
might prove difficult for a yeshivah.
Although one must tell the truth even when circumstances make it
uncomfortable to do so, it is natural for people to try to hide or distort
the truth when it would prove embarrassing. For this reason, we must be
careful not to ask someone a question that we suspect he will be afraid or
embarrassed to answer. If we see someone speaking privately to another
person, we must not ask what they were discussing (3). If someone missed
a wedding or other simchah (celebration) that we have held, we should not
ask him why they were not there (4). In situations such as these, people
will often make up an excuse that is not true rather than confess the real
reason, so in a sense our inquiry might lead them to speak falsely. Just
as we must speak the truth at all times, we must also do what we can to
help others to speak only the truth.
1. Rashi on Bereshith 44:20.
2. Responsa Lev Chaim 1:5.
3. Sefer Chasidim 1062.
4. Niv Sefathayim, part 2 siman 21.