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December 8 2011
What's Polite? What's A Lie?
Parshat Vayishlach: Genesis 32:4-
36:43; Obadiah 1:1-21.
his week's reading presents us
with three instances of polite
speech. The first is meant
to further the good of the world. The
second is designed to mislead others
in some fashion. The third represents
a deception that is really an
act of kindness.
Polite speech in its pure
sense is designed to bring
two (or more) individu-
als together to accurately
understand each other.
Being polite opens receptiv-
ity. But polite speech can
trick people into a receptiv-
ity that is designed to bring
down their appropriate
guard. Then the speaker
could use the moment to
have the outcome go his
own way. Polite for true meeting or
polite for personal gain?
The first example in this portion
is honest and open and kind. Jacob
meets Esau after two decades of
separation. Jacob, 20 years ago, did
his brother wrong and fled. Now he
attempts to do right. He sends word
to his brother using poetic language.
He calls Esau "lord" and himself a ser-
vant. He is honest about where he was
and how he has fared (well). (Sadly,
polite language will not be enough to
rescue the situation. Esau is indepen-
dently traveling to meet Jacob with
400 armed men.)
Later in the portion, Jacob's one
daughter, Dinah, is raped. The rapist,
Shechem, then wishes to continue the
relationship with Dinah. His father,
Hamor, comes with Shechem to nego-
tiate a marriage and bride price with
Jacob and his sons. The meeting is
tense as Hamor knows his son's sin
and Dinah's brothers are "extremely
angry," to quote the Torah. Dinah's
brothers are polite. However, the sweet
talk masks a plot to kill the rapist and
Finally, we read the very sad and
touching scene of Benjamin's birth.
Rachael is dying as Benjamin begins
his life. The labor is most difficult.
The midwife knows the truth. Yet her
words are both sweetly polite even
if they contain deceit. She
says, "Don't be afraid, as
this one is also a boy." The
midwife's kindness masks
the truth, but not to bring
harm. Rather she seeks to
Polite speech is a tool, a
means and not an end in
itself. Polite speech opens
the door for the passage
of information. Whether
the recipient responds gra-
ciously, whether we attach
lies to our gracious words
or whether our words carry a core
intent of kindness, depends not on the
polite speech that is fundamentally
an aspect of shared protocol, but on
the true intentions of the individuals.
Polite speech is a beginning. A good
heart is a necessity.
Robert D. Levy is a rabbi at Temple Beth
Emeth in Ann Arbor.
1."Please" and "thank you"
are the magic words of polite
speech. Can you name any
2. Jacob follows up his words with
gifts. When are gifts polite and
when are they bribes? (My mother
calls a gift brought when visiting a
"mitt-bring" from the German.)
3. What are the rules for lying?
When is it OK to lie? Did Dinah's
brothers do right? Did the