Rabbi Weinreb's Parsha Column, Mishpatim

"Truth Be Told"

I once taught a class whose purpose it was to introduce Midrashic literature to an audience of very intelligent individuals who previously had only limited experience with primary Jewish texts. It was an introductory course, in which I attempted to expose the students to several simple yet illustrative passages from the vast literature of Midrash. To stimulate discussion, I asked the class to come up with titles of their own which would fit the passage under study.

One passage led to a particularly vigorous discussion. Although this passage is found in the Midrash Genesis Rabba 8:5, it has a direct connection to a verse in this week's Torah portion, Parashat Mishpatim (Exodus 21:1-24:18). Here is the Midrash in question, slightly abbreviated and loosely translated:

Said Rabbi Simon: "When the Holy One, Blessed Be He, first considered creating Adam, the ministering angels were divided. Some opposed his creation; others advocated it. As the verse in Psalms (85:11) reads, 'Benevolence and Truth meet; Justice and Peace kiss.' The angel Benevolence favored man's creation, because [man] is so capable of great benevolence. But the angel Truth countered that man should not be created, because he is hopelessly full of falsehood. Justice sided with Benevolence, arguing that man could behave justly, while Peace allied with Truth and resisted man's creation, fearing man's incurable passion for strife and war. What did the Holy One do? He grasped Truth and cast it down to the earth. The angels pleaded with the Holy One to restore Truth to Heaven. The verse in Psalms continues, 'Truth sprouts up from the earth.'"

The variety of titles which the students proffered in response to my "assignment" reflects the differing lessons they derived from it. One entitled the passage "Close Call." She was obviously impressed by the fragility of mankind's very existence and how we were almost not created at all. Another suggested "The Great Debate," emphasizing that conflict and discord exist even among the heavenly angels. Yet a third student preferred the title "Human Nature." She considered the theme of this passage to be the dual nature of human beings. Yes, we are capable of kindness and charity, but we can all too readily descend to the depths of deceit and violent discord.

Despite these different perspectives, the students were unanimous in expressing their curiosity about the "end of the story." Did the Almighty acquiesce to the pleas of the angels and restore Truth to its celestial glory? The commentaries, much like the angels, disagree on this point. Whereas most standard commentaries are convinced that He yielded to His angelic advisors, some insist otherwise. Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, for example, maintains that Truth remains forever elusive and exceedingly rare, a castaway to this very day.

I mention the Kotzker Rebbe for two reasons. One is because he deserves a tribute at this time of year. His yahrzeit, the anniversary of his death, occurs on the 20th day of Shevat, just about the time that we read Parashat Mishpatim in the synagogue.

But more so, I mention this enigmatic visionary because he typifies the spiritual leader who demanded utter truth, not only from his disciples but from all mankind. Indeed, his obsession with truth eventually led to his withdrawal from society, so disillusioned was he with the deceit and falsehood which prevail in the world.

The ultimate basis for the primacy of truth in the Jewish tradition, however, is not in the words of Genesis, nor even in the Midrashic homilies, such as the one that we just sampled. Rather, it is to be found here, in Parashat Mishpatim, which numbers as many as 25 distinct commandments.

The verse in question reads, "Keep far from a false word." Note that the Torah does not admonish us not to lie. That prohibition is to be found elsewhere, in Leviticus 19:11, which reads, "You shall not deal deceitfully or falsely one with another." There the Torah says "don't." That's the customary biblical language for a prohibition. Our verse, on the other hand, does not tell us not to express false words. It tells us to keep far from them, to remove ourselves from falsehood, to distance ourselves from a lie.

The Kotzker Rebbe used the verse in Mishpatim as the basis of his philosophy of Jewish life. But he was far from the first to recognize the peculiar emphasis of the words "keep far". A lesser-known commentary, Tzedah LaDerech, wondered about it too. Here's how he put it:

"I find it difficult to understand why Scripture uses the expression 'keep far' with reference to lying, something which it does nowhere else. It occurs to me that this is because there is no more common and frequent transgression than speaking falsely. It was because of mankind's tendency to distort the truth that the angels opposed mankind's very existence."

Recognition of the prevalence of deceit in the world, and the difficulties of discovering truth, is not limited to Jewish tradition. Greek legend tells of the philosopher Diogenes, who walked about the streets of ancient Athens with a lantern, vainly searching in broad daylight for an honest man. It is no wonder that he came to be known as Diogenes the Cynic; indeed, the very word cynic derives from his colorful life story. However, it does not take cynicism to realize that honesty is a very precious commodity.

George Orwell, whose writings often read as uncanny prophecies, wrote: "In a time of deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary art." He knew that society could deteriorate to the point where deceit became the norm, so that it would take the immense courage of a revolutionary to speak the truth.

Rashi, in his commentary upon an entirely different biblical story, asserts that a lie must have at least a dose of truth in it if it is to be convincing. Perhaps, in his time, a total lie would have been disbelieved. Alas, this is no longer so, particularly with regard to statements about the Jewish people and about the State of Israel. Against us, the "big lie" is easily peddled to a frighteningly gullible world.

The "big lie" is attributed to the infamous Joseph Goebbels, who shrewdly knew its shocking power. Here is the Random House Dictionary's definition of the term: "The big lie is a false statement of outrageous magnitude, employed as a propaganda measure in the belief that a lesser falsehood would not be credible." It took the diabolical insight of a genocidal murderer to recognize this human perversion.

How does one combat falsehood and deceit? What is the antidote to the "big lies" that surround us?

There is but one answer, and that is the consistent and articulate enunciation of the truth and the avoidance of even traces of falsehood. The secret of truth's triumph rests in the brief three-word phrase in this week's Torah portion: midvar sheker tirchak—not only "don't lie," but "keep far from a false word."