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The Torah of Julian Assange


As we come to the close of the book of Beresheit/Genesis, I find myself thinking about Julian Assange. Yes, that Julian Assange, creator and mastermind of WikiLeaks, the guy some love to love and some love to hate (check out the links – they’re fabulous).

This is the week that Jacob dies at a ripe old age in Egypt, though not before he adopts his grandsons as direct heirs (thus giving Joseph a double portion of inheritance), makes a whole lot of blunt pronouncements masquerading as blessings, and secures a promise from Joseph to be buried in the Cave of Machpelah. At the end of the mourning period for Jacob, some contingent of his sons send a message to their wildly successful brother off in the palace: Dad told us to tell you to forgive us for our wretched behavior all those many years ago. Please don’t hold it against us. He’s dead and we can’t prove it, but that’s what he said.

Joseph tells them not to worry – if he hadn’t been sold into Egypt, helped Pharaoh, and ascended to the #2 spot in Egypt, then they would likely have starved when the famine hit (and there goes the whole covenant thing out the window). It’s all good, says he, weeping into his sleeve, and extracts a vow that they will take his bones out of Egypt as well.

So. How much does Jacob really know and how much does he suspect about his sons? He certainly has choice words for many of them, calling his first-born son Reuven (who slept with his – Jacob’s – concubine) unstable as water, one who brought disgrace. He tells Shimon & Levi, the next two in line, that he doesn’t not want to be counted in their assembly, for their weapons are tools of lawlessness (these 2 slaughtered a whole village of men several chapters back).

Judah does quite well by the old man, but Benjamin (his youngest, for whom Jacob has a tender spot) is predicted to have a future full of successful military struggle. Zebulun, Issachar, Dan, Gad, Asher, and Naphtali do alright, if somewhat boringly. And Joseph is a wild donkey with archers bitterly attacking him — though his bow remains taut and his arms firm, blessed as he is by both his father and God.

These are strange blessings, indeed. Biblical commentators draw a connection between later tribal political realities & the “blessings” bestowed on the sons — some to say aha! Jacob was right! and others to demonstrate the workings of redaction. But what strikes me is that there is no mention of the pit incident. Not one word. Though it is foremost in the text – and in our minds – it plays no obvious role in Jacob’s litany. If it were, Reuven might be praised for talking his brothers out of outright murder and Judah given a little zetz for suggesting they sell Joseph to the Ishmaelites. Instead, it’s the opposite.

How much did Jacob know and when did he know it? Did Joseph ever rat out his brothers or did he adopt a stance of silent equanimity? Was he ever tempted to tell all? Did Jacob ever ask what the hell happened to you all those years ago?

Which brings me back to Assange. In the end, what good would it do to make public the secret diplomatic cables wherein the brothers plot and plan Joseph’s demise? Joseph, himself, certainly doesn’t need to see in print the single most defining moment of his life. And Jacob might not want definite proof of his sons’ murderous jealousy and how things got that bad.

As I’ve written elsewhere (here and here), it isn’t always better to know the truth in practice, even if we argue otherwise in theory. If Jacob found out, after the fact, about his son’s conspiracies, then what? Other than heartbreak, what is he to do? Of course, they aren’t political leaders with the capacity to unleash outrageous amounts of firepower based on their secrets and lies, so perhaps the analogy is suspect.

As always, it comes back to the amount of truth that will set us free – and whether we want (or need) that freedom. The word torah means “instruction.” As the story of WikiLeaks unfolds, I’ll be watching for what can be learned from complete honesty. I’ll be thinking of our ancestors and their very messy decisions.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. 12/15/2010 3:41 pm

    This is an awesome post, and very appropriate to this week’s Torah portion. There is another instance of truth and lies that I would like to bring up. The brothers tell Joseph that Jacob wanted peace between the brothers and Jacob, etc, but it never says that. The Midrash and the Talmud both point to that as “lying for the sake of peace”. I’ll be posting on that topic in a couple of days and I’ll end up asking the same question you do: where’s the balance? How much truth do we really want?

    Definitely something to think about. Maybe, as the movie says, we really can’t handle the truth.

    • sue swartz permalink*
      12/15/2010 8:46 pm

      Looking forward to your post as well.

      Talmud & other experts aside, I think the brothers were just trying to save their skins. Or, at the very least, trying to figure out how much trouble they still might be in. I don’t read it as “lying for the sake of peace.” Perhaps I’m being cynical, but these dudes have done very little to gain my trust.

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