Torah Thoughs


by Rabbi Amy Eilberg


Shabbat Shekalim

Exodus 21:1-24:18, 30:11-16

2 Kings 12:1-17

"When the Blessed Holy One was about to create humanity, the ministering angels divided into two groups. Mercy said: Create humanity! Truth said: Do not create humanity — they are falsehood!" (Genesis Rabbah 70:8)

The above midrash gives stark expression to the challenge of honesty in our lives. If Truth itself could speak, the midrash imagines, it would bemoan the ways in which we regularly conceal and distort the truth in large and small ways.

The Torah gives us two versions of the commandment to speak the truth. One offers the straightforward proscription: "Do not deal falsely with one another" (Leviticus 19:12). By contrast, our parashah makes the mitzvah far broader, by commanding: "Keep far away from falsehood" (Exodus 23:7). This broader expression of the commandment seems to caution us against a whole continuum of dishonesty, ranging from outright lies to self-protective misrepresentations, perhaps even to failure to disclose that which ought to have been shared.

Rabbinic literature has a great deal to say on the subject of "white lies," told to protect another. Consider three classic cases:

*When the angels told Sarah that she would bear a child in her old age, she laughed and said to herself, "In my old age shall I have pleasure, when my husband is also old?" (Genesis 18:12). Yet when God told Abraham of Sarah's reaction, God did not repeat Sarah's statement that Abraham was too old. From this case the rabbis derived the principle, "It is permissible to deviate [from the truth] for the sake of peace" (Yevamot 65b).

*The Midrash imagines that Aaron, known as a rodef shalom or pursuer of peace, would intervene when two people were in conflict with one another. Aaron would first sit with one of them and tell this person that the other was heartbroken over the rift, and remorseful about his or her part in the fight. Aaron would sit with the first one until the person's heart softened. Then Aaron would approach the other and tell this person the same thing — that the other was full of remorse, and in great pain over the rift, until this person was also ready to reconcile. Then the two would come together and fall into each other's arms, eager to make peace (Avot de-Rabbi Nathan 12).

*The Talmud rules that one must exclaim, "The bride is beautiful and graceful," even if she is not a physically beautiful woman (Ketubot 17a).

These cases seem to suggest wide latitude in Jewish law for the telling of "white" lies. How could this be so, when the Torah explicitly commands us to "keep far away from falsehood"?

It seems to me that these three cases deal with a very narrow range of situations. In the first, the "lie" is an omission of an unnecessary detail that would cause hurt and serve no purpose. In the second, Aaron's fabrication is clearly crafted to bring the hearts of people together, to make peace. In the third case, the disingenuous compliment to the bride may actually be evidence of a deeper vision: Perhaps every bride, every person deeply in love, is beautiful, regardless of physical features.

The ways in which many of us bend and distort the truth in the course of our lives ranges over much wider territory than these three cases. We may stretch the truth to protect ourselves from embarrassment, to try to look better than we are, to evade responsibility for our actions and for many other reasons. The problem: Dishonesty is a seductive, even addictive, habit. It can wreak havoc with relationships and with our own integrity.

A teacher of mine once told me that he actively looked for opportunities to tell the truth, especially when doing so would be difficult or embarrassing for him. For him it was a spiritual commitment to cultivate truth-telling as an ingrained habit, so that he could never stray from it, except to avoid causing needless pain to others. He had learned to stay far from falsehood. We would do well to do the same.