Parashat Vayieshev 12.01.18

Bad News & Fake News 

Bex Stern Rosenblatt, Conservative Yeshiva Faculty 

There is no universal right way to tell someone bad news (at least that I know of; if you do, please share). However, this week’s parashah, Parashat Vayeshev can be read as a case study of different models for how to disclose unpleasant information. 

On one extreme, we find Joseph, the truth-teller. Joseph tells it like it is, with no concern for the listener’s sensibilities. Important to him is the communication of information. Unprompted, Joseph goes out of his way to let people know what he knows. We see this both times that Joseph discusses dreams. 

In the first set of dreams, in Genesis 37, Joseph dreams and then immediately shares his dreams with his brothers and then with his father. At this point, it is unclear if Joseph understands the information he is sharing, if he knows that he is telling his family that, according to his dreams, they will be subservient to him. Nonetheless, his family quickly interprets the dreams as insulting to them. Joseph had been so committed to the idea of sharing the information that he either did not consider what effect the information might have on his family or he chose to ignore it. 

In the second set of dreams, in Genesis 40, Joseph knows exactly what sort of information he is sharing. Joseph notices that his comrades are upset and volunteers his dream-interpretation services. However, this compassion does not extend to the way he relates the information he has to give. Joseph tells the baker he has three days left to live before he is impaled and his body is eaten by birds. He uses the same initial language he has used in interpreting the cupbearer’s dream of restoration to his old position, starting with, “In three days time, Pharoah will lift your head…” The cupbearer’s head will be lifted and restored to its old position while the baker’s head will be lifted clean off his body. After giving the baker a moment of hope that he might share in the cupbearer’s good fortune, Joseph mercilessly reveals the information he has to give, with no regard for the one receiving the news.

Judah and Tamar, in Genesis 38, are on the other side of the spectrum for how to relay information. Rather than telling the truth no matter the consequence, Tamar and Judah determine their desired consequences and then relay information that will lead to those consequences. While they are certainly more aware of how their news will affect the listener than Joseph is, their primary concern is not for the listener but for themselves. First, Judah, tells Tamar a half-truth, sending her home in order to try to preserve the life of his one remaining child. Tamar, in turn, wanting to ensure the continuation of her dead husband’s line, manipulates the way she is perceived by presenting herself as a harlot.

Potiphar’s wife, in Genesis 39, takes Judah and Tamar’s art of manipulation to a new level. She no longer is presenting half-truths; she is lying, plain and simple. When Joseph refuses to sleep with her, she makes up a rape story, which she tells twice, once to the workers of the house and once to her husband. In keeping with her character, she manipulates the details in each telling, changing parts so as to elicit maximum sympathy. 

There is another example in this week’s parashah of how to disclose information, namely Reuben. In Genesis 37:22, Reuben pushes back against his brothers’ plan to kill Joseph. He says to his murderous brothers, “Do not spill blood! Let us cast him into this pit here in the desert, and not cast a hand against him.” The narrator adds, “So that he might rescue him from their hands to return him to his father.” Here, Reuben successfully pursues his own agenda without lying to or disregarding the people to whom he speaks. However, although Reuben is successful in saving Joseph’s life, he does not manage to implement the second, unspoken part of his plan.

As we read this parashah in an era of consistently bad news, take a moment to reflect on your style of disclosing information. Which of this week’s models speaks to you? Is there perhaps a better way to do it?