This Week’s Torah portion: Vayigash
Telling the Truth Slant
When Jacob hears from his sons that Joseph is alive the verse says, ‘he did not believe them.’ לֹא־הֶֽאֱמִ֖ין לָהֶֽם
Why didn’t their words feel true? He had been waiting twenty-two years to hear this news about his beloved son. But when he finally hears it, he rejects it.
What the brothers say to their father is simple: עוד יוסף חי (Yosef still lives).
The 11thcentury French commentator Rashi writes that when Jacob heard the words of his sons, Jacob’s heart went away from believing these words.
I think the Torah is telling us something about words. That they are limited and don’t always hold the power to communicate.
Sometimes we just can’t hear plain words.
When the nineteenth century American poet Emily Dickinson read in a newspaper about a friend’s husband who had passed away, she wrote a letter to her grieving friend that began, ‘We read the words but know them not’.
In another letter to a friend Dickinson, after her own father passed away, writes: ‘It is too soon for language’.
In the same way, language was ‘too soon’ for Jacob.
How does Jacob finally absorb this new information? It’s not through words.
Emily Dickinson began a poem with the line, ‘Tell all the truth but tell is slant’. Dickinson was suggesting here that the truth can be communicated, but it must be told slant, indirectly, not straight.
The Torah tells us the slant way that the truth was communicated to Jacob:
The verse says, ‘and he saw the wagons that Joseph had sent to carry him, and the spirit of their father Joseph was revived.’
Rashi says this means that: The Shechina (God’s presence) which had been separated from him because of his grief, rested upon him once again.
In other words, Jacob could only be ready, be spiritually whole enough to know the news that Joseph was alive not from communication through words but when he was given a non-verbal sign, in this case, the wagons. The wagons were telling the truth slant.
Rashi quotes the midrash: the wagons were a sign from Joseph to remind the father of the topic they were learning together the last time before he left the family – it was the section dealing with the heifer that was beheaded and the wagons were a sign of this.
Jewish tradition is so aware of the need to communicate truth with a slant that there are a few other midrashim about how Jacob came to absorb the new shocking information about his son being alive without words.
One of the other midrashim says that Jacob’s grand-daughter played a harp in order to communicate to her grandfather that Joseph was alive.
The Torah places such a high value on this ability, this gift to communicate without only words, that tradition says that Jacob gave a blessing to his grand-daughter that she would live forever.
The Torah is encouraging us to notice the limits of language in our own lives and bring that acknowledgment to our interactions with people. Holding back words and finding other ways to communicate is always something to consider. For example, sometimes simply sitting with someone who is sad in silence can offer so much comfort. This can be one of the greatest gifts we can give.