August 7, 2018

Not in God’s name (Miketz)

Parashat Miketz tells the dramatic story of Yosef’s sudden rise power and his harsh treatment of his brothers.

Having accused his brothers of coming to Egypt with the intention of spying, Yosef exclaims: ‘by Pharaoh’s life – you will not leave here except with the arrival of your youngest brother here’ (Bereishit 42:15).

But as Rabbi Yaakov Kametsky points out, this oath-like expression is a particularly unusual turn of phrase since on all previous occasions that Yosef made an oath of committed himself to do something he invoked the name of God.

Basing himself on Rashi’s commentary, R’ Yaakov explains that the reason why Yosef used this expression here is because he was swearing falsely, and ‘when he swore falsely, he swore by Pharaoh’s life’.

I believe that this is an important point because, all too often, people seek to justify wrongdoing by invoking the name of God. As Rabbi Sacks so powerfully explains in his book ‘Not in God’s Name’: “Too often in the history of religion, people have killed in the name of the God of life, waged war in the name of the God of peace, hated in the name of the God of love and practised cruelty in the name of the God of compassion. When this happens, God speaks, sometimes in a still, small voice almost inaudible beneath the clamour of those claiming to speak on his behalf. What he says at such times is: Not in My Name” (Not in God’s Name p. 3).

In this instance, Yosef was doing none of these heinous acts. He was neither killing, waging war, hating or acting cruelly. Yet, even in an instance where he felt compelled to say something not-quite-true, he avoided invoking God’s name.

This serves as an important lesson to us all. While there may be times when we need to say something not-quite-true, let’s not bring God into it.

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