|Artwork: Peace Talks, by Roger Raupp|
Parashas Vayechi: Lying for Peace
Yosef’s brothers perceived that their father was dead, and they said, “Perhaps Yosef will harbor hatred against us and then he will surely repay us all the evil that we did him.” So they instructed that Yosef be told, “Your father gave orders before his death, saying: ‘Thus shall you say to Yosef: “O please, kindly forgive the flagrant offense of your brothers and their sin for they have done you evil.”’ So now, please forgive the flagrant offense of the servants of your father’s God.” And Yosef wept when they spoke to him. (Bereishis 50:15-17)According to the midrash cited by Rashi , the brothers had legitimate cause for worry. Once Yaakov died, Yosef ceased acting friendly towards them. In order to protect themselves from Yosef’s hatred, they lied and told him that their father had commanded Yosef to forgive them. In truth, Yaakov would never have said such a thing, since he didn’t actually suspect Yosef of bearing a grudge. According to the plain pshat, Yosef was distressed to be informed that his father did suspect him.
The question is: Were Yosef’s brothers correct to lie? On the one hand, they were worried about their own wellbeing. On the other hand, “Hashem hates … a false tongue” (Mishlei 6:16).
Chazal’s position on this matter is clear. Not only were Yosef’s brothers permitted to lie in that particular situation, but we learn from them that even we are permitted to lie for the sake of shalom. The Gemara in Yevamos 65b states in the name of R’ Shimon: “one is permitted to modify [a statement] for the sake of shalom.” To support his claim, R’ Shimon cites the lie told by Yosef’s brothers.
In the same Gemara R’ Nosson goes further and says that in some situations, it is a mitzvah to lie for the sake of shalom. He cites his evidence from Sefer Shmuel. Hashem commanded Shmuel to go and anoint David as king. Shmuel is reluctant, saying, “How can I go? If Shaul finds out he will kill me” (I Shmuel 16:2) to which Hashem replies, “Take along a heifer and say, ‘I have come to bring an offering to Hashem.’ Invite Yishai to the feast; I will then tell you what to do, and you shall anoint for Me the one whom I shall tell you” (ibid. 16:2-3). In other words, Hashem commanded Shmuel to lie to Shaul in order to conceal the plot to anoint a new king. This is an even greater proof that Hashem endorses certain lies.
We may ask a further question about the Torah’s position on lying: Does the matir (license) to lie imply that the act of lying is actually good in these situations, or would it be more accurate to say that lying is bad, but the benefits of peace outweigh the detriments of lying?
This question applies whenever we encounter a matir to do an otherwise prohibited action. For example, if an emergency happens on Shabbos which results in a threat to a Jewish life, we are commanded to violate Shabbos in order to save that person’s life. The Rambam writes  that in a situation like this, we should not relegate the Shabbos violation to goyim, children, or slaves. Instead, the Shabbos violation should be done by the greatest gedolim and chachamim in order to show the idea taught by the pasuk: “You shall guard My chukim and My mishpatim, which a person should do and live by them” (Vayikra 18:5) – which Torah she’baal Peh explains to mean, “and live by them” – not “and die by them.” In other words, the violation of Shabbos under these circumstances is a good thing, insofar as it conveys a fundamental idea about Torah, namely, that “the the laws of Torah are not vengeance in the world, but mercy, kindness, and peace in the world.”
In contrast, halacha will sometimes permit us to do prohibited act, not because the act contains any good, but because it is the lesser of two evils, or because there is a greater good involved. For example, it is prohibited to write down Torah she’baal Peh (the Oral Torah). Hashem designed Torah she’bi’Chsav (the Written Torah) to be learned and taught exclusively from a text, and Torah she’baal Peh to be learned and taught exclusively by speech. Nevertheless, R’ Yehuda ha’Nasi made the decision to commit Torah she’baal Peh to writing. Although this decision resulted in a certain “corruption” of Torah she’baal Peh, and subjected it to further dangers, it was the lesser of two evils. If he hadn't sanctioned the violation of the prohibition against violating Torah she’baal Peh, the entire Torah would be lost forever.
Ralbag gives a definitive answer: lying is considered to be “bad,” but the benefits of shalom are so great that they sometimes necessitate the moral sacrifice of telling a lie. He  writes:
It is proper for a person to strive to achieve shalom by whatever means possible, for this provides a tremendous benefit for society at large and for private households. For this reason, one shouldn't be concerned about using a somewhat disgraceful action – such as a lie – as a vehicle for achieving shalom, for it is not proper to avoid lying if such a great end might be achieved. For this reason you will find that Yosef’s brothers used a false story in the name of their father as a vehicle for achieving shalom. For this reason Chazal said that it is permissible to modify a statement for the sake of shalom. Elsewhere they said: “it is a mitzvah to lie for shalom.”This point has an important ramification. Even though halacha permits us to lie for a sake of shalom, we must be cognizant of the destructive consequences of lying and take measures to mitigate those consequences. Likewise, one should only utilize this matir to lie if one has done a thorough analysis and determined that the beneficial shalom-related outcomes will outweigh the detriments effects of the lie, since this – according to the Ralbag – is the only reason why we have permission to lie in the first place. Just because halacha permits an action doesn't mean we should do it – and in situations where the act is warranted, we shouldn't do it mindlessly.