Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Making Up Stories

Parshat Vayechi

by Rabbi Avi Billet

Many years ago I saw a movie called “Glengarry Glen Ross” which is based on a play by David Mamet. Mamet is known for his roller coaster dialogue and fantastical plot turns, and this movie, about a veteran salesman trying to sell real estate, is loaded with both. It was my custom to read the reviews of Roger Ebert after watching a movie — his commentary always had a keen insight, and helped me get a deeper appreciation for the film. Sometimes we both liked it, sometimes we both hated it, and sometimes we would disagree.

In that movie, one of his observations about Jack Lemmon’s performance in the film was quite memorable.

“Look at Shelley (the Machine) Levene (Lemmon’s character)... he was once a hotshot salesman... Now he is making no sales at all... and it’s heartbreaking to hear his lies, about how he would feel wrong, not sharing this ‘marvelous opportunity.’ 
Lemmon has a scene in this movie that represents the best work he has ever done. He makes a house call on a man who does not want to buy real estate. The man knows it, we know it, Lemmon knows it — but Lemmon keeps trying, not registering the man’s growing impatience to have him out of his house.” 

This is the final story of Yosef and his brothers. Since identifying himself as their long lost brother, Yosef has been only gracious, has shown only love, has expressed only the desire for his brothers to not feel guilt for having him sold, for had Yosef not been in Egypt to interpret Paroh’s dreams, perhaps they’d have all died in the famine. And now they’ll all be taken care of for the rest of Yosef’s days, if not the rest of their days as well.

And yet after their father dies, the brothers present a tale to Yosef about a conversation that purportedly took place before the recent death in the family (50:16-17). Every indication in the Torah suggests they fabricated the “conversation with their father.” Rashi says so plainly in 50:16. To partially quote Ebert, “they knew it, we know it, and perhaps even Yosef knew it.”

To be sure, some commentaries suggest Yaakov did actually say what they claim he said (Taz quotes Ramban elsewhere as saying such, and even initially suggests it himself), even though most commentators think they made it up.

The Netziv wonders how Yosef could have missed such a deathbed command, particularly when one considers where Yosef spent the last few days of his father’s life, at his bedside. Netziv concludes that there were hints in the blessings Yaakov gave which showed the command, but Yosef did not catch them the way his brothers did.

Regardless of which way one understands, neither side knew or presented the complete picture, because, as some commentaries point out, until his dying day Yaakov never knew how Yosef ended up in Egypt, nor of the role the brothers played in getting him there. If this is the case, the likelihood of his commanding Yosef not to enact revenge is increasingly minute.

I raise all this out of a particular concern I have which plagues the Internet world in general, and specifically a certain Internet population who ought to behave differently than they do.

Two top stories in the Jewish Star, including this week’s lead story, which was first posted online late last week, were subsequently picked up by the popular Jewish news aggregate website, Having personally had the experience of some of my writings for this paper being posted there, I know full well the editor posts news items and articles he finds to be of interest, hoping to share his intrigue with his readership.

I commend his efforts.

But the readers who choose to anonymously utilize the comments section — while they should by all rights be ignored for not putting their names to their opinions — cause a bigger chilul Hashem (desecration of God’s name) than any news item or editorial that they so designate. Three-quarters of the time the negative responses clearly stem from having read only the headline, and the other negative responses raise holier-than-thou arguments with statistics and “facts” apparently fabricated out of thin air.

Do we, in the Jewish community, have our differences? Absolutely. Does the muckraking of individuals who, with the click of a few keys, aim to destroy Yeshiva University, the memory of Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Modern Orthodox Jews, Jews who struggle with tremendous challenges, and anyone who wishes to support any or all of those listed, fit in line with Jewish thought and halakha? Absolutely not.

While we can not be sure if Yosef’s brothers made up their story, many of the commenters on VIN are definitely guilty of making things up about all parties in question.

Rechilus (slander) is still Rechilus, and should not be tolerated under any circumstances.

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