Religious Life

Truth and Lies – Yom Kippur 5778

Truth and Lies – Yom Kippur 5778
Beth El Synagogue
Rabbi Alexander Davis

I always love the high holy days. I love the feeling of pageantry and the prayers, the shofar and the honey. And I love the crowds. How inspiring to look out and see 10,000 people packed into our sanctuary. Believe me. Standing room only. And if you count the live stream, half a million people easily. Amazing. Tremendous. Believe me.

Should we call this a “truthful hyperbole” or what it really is, a lie? Such was the conundrum as well for Winston Smith, a record keeper in the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s once-again-popular 1984. “How can I not see what is in front of my eyes?” Winston thinks to himself. “Two and two are four.” “Sometimes,” his colleague responds, “Sometimes Winston they are five. Sometimes they are three. Sometimes they are all of them at once. You must try harder. It is not easy to become sane.”

Chaverim, we are living in times that strain our sanity because we can no longer distinguish between truth and lies. It was no surprise that last year the Oxford Dictionary picked “post-truth” as its Word-of-the-Year even beating out “alt-right.” For this is a time of alternative facts, a time of fake news, a time when truth is a matter of opinion and when our pants on fire no longer hang from a telephone wire. That makes this a time of instability and uncertainty because lies erode trust and break down society just as they break down individual relationships.

The only upside to this age of truthiness, suggests satirist Andy Borowitz, is that there has been a huge surge in job opportunities for fact checkers. Experts expect the industry to remain strong outpacing manufacturing, agriculture, and technology. Indeed, the Labor Department reported that in the first quarter of this fiscal year alone, over a billion fact checking jobs were created. (New Yorker, Jan. 2017)

The truth is, the number of fact checking, myth busting agencies is growing. It’s a sad commentary on our day and age. The question for us is, are we using them? We need to learn to evaluate the information we take in. But on this Yom Kippur, it’s no less important to consider the words we speak.

Someone asks if you are free Saturday night. You are, but you don’t want to see that person so you tell them, “Thanks, I already have plans.”

Someone calls but you’re not in the mood to talk. You instruct your child who answered the phone to say, “sorry, my dad’s not here.”

You really want the job so you exaggerate your qualifications.

These might be small lies in the grand scheme of things. And yet lies, both big and small, have the power to damage worlds, worlds out there and worlds in here. For when you lie, you fail others, fail yourself and fail God.

Enter these High Holy Days, these Days of Truth, that teach us renew our relationships and our world. Last night, we established a court room. Today we are called to the witness stand “to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.” But before we can offer testimony, we must better understand truth and lies.

Regarding lies, the Torah is absolutely clear: “midvar sheker tirchak, keep away from lies” (Ex 23:7). Not only is lying forbidden, we should keep far away, far away from those who pronounce them, far away from things that smell like lies such as exaggerations. It is noteworthy that this the only transgression in which the Torah calls upon us to “keep away.” Violate Shabbat, eat treif, fail to tithe your crop. Those are bad. Don’t do them. But when it comes to lies, get far, far away.

That is because truth is the seal of God. Truth is one of God’s names. Truth is one of the pillars on which the world stands as we see above our ark- a world (the eternal light) resting on emet, truth. To lie, is thus to forge God’s seal, to take God’s name in vein, to destabilize the world. To lie is to distance yourself from God for Adonai Elohekhem Emet, God is the God of truth.

Seems pretty clear cut. But of course, Jewish law is more nuanced than that because life is more complicated than that. Society and our souls require that we make a commitment to the truth. And yet we recognize the complexities of our world.

Recall the story of the birth of Isaac. God says to Sarah, “you are gonna have a baby!” And Sarah laughs in disbelief saying, “I am gonna have a baby with my husband Abraham who is so old?’  God then goes to Abraham to tell him the good news: “Abraham you’re gonna be a dad. When I told Sarah, she laughed saying, “Is it possible? I am so old?”

Did you hear the switch? God deliberately misquoted Sarah to spare Abraham’s feelings and to keep sh’lom bayit, peace in the home. God measured the impact God’s words and carefully massaged the truth. From here the Talmud learns that you are not obligated to tell the whole truth if it will hurt someone’s feelings. You may lie for the sake of peace (Yev 65b), all the more so, to save a life.

But take a different example, from the same part of the Talmud (Yev 63a): Rav was constantly annoyed with his wife. If he asked for lentils, she’d cook him peas. If he asked for peas, she’d cook him lentils.

Now, we might say, “let him make dinner himself.” But this is what happens. When Rav’s son, Hiyya grew up, he wanted to help out his dad so he relayed his father’s dinner request to his mom but reversed the menu. If his dad wanted lentils, he told his mom, “dad wants peas.”

One day, Rav said to his son, “mom has become a great cook.” “Ya,” Hiyyah said, “that’s because I reverse your menus.” To which Rav replied, “son, you must stop for the Bible warns us, “do not teach their tongue to lie.”

Hiyya’s lie to his mother was harmless. Still, his father preferred to forgo his meal of choice rather than to teach his son that it’s ok to lie. It was more important to raise his child to be committed to the truth.

In the first story, God changed Sarah’s words and told a partial truth. In the second story, Rav refused to be party to a white lie. What are we to make of these lessons?
On the one hand, we are to stay clear of lies. On the other hand, sometimes white lies are acceptable. On the one hand, we must tell the truth. On the other hand, we may deviate from the truth for a greater good.

As you can see, it is complicated. For now we have entered a minefield. We have made truth situational, subjective, dependent on our own judgment. The problem is, our judgment is fallible. We are easily misled by others and by our own penchant for self-deception.

What are we to do? When Rabban Gamliel taught that the world rests on truth, he cited a helpful proof text from the prophet Zekharia, “emet… shiftu b’saareichem execute the judgment of truth in your gates” (Avot 1:18). That is to say, truth requires judgment. Popular Musar teacher Alan Morinis, explains in his book, Everyday Holiness, “Truth is not a thing that depends only on the scientifically verifiable facts. Truth is an exercise, a judgment, and a test” (p. 172). The goal is to live truth for the sake of your soul and the souls of others.

On this Yom Hadin, this Day of Judgment, we are reminded that not only are we judged but that we are to use good judgment. That begins with honest, critical discernment: Do I tell the truth? Do I believe what I just heard? Do I forward this post before checking the facts? These are just some of the questions that should run through our mind.

Execute judgment in your gates. This approach “puts the onus on us to maintain a strong inner compass to use our judgment to define truth and to decide how to apply it.” Luckily, we are up to the task. We need only listen to our heart of hearts with sensitive ears, to receive the guidance we need. In the words of the great Musar rabbi, Eliyahu Desser, every “human being has the faculty of determining in his own heart where the truth lies” (Strive for Truth).

We see this exemplified in a story quoted by Rashi on the Talmud (Makkot 24a): Once, Rabbi Safra was in the middle of davening the shema when a buyer came up to him and said, “I want to buy such and such item and I am willing to pay $100.” Since he was in the middle of his prayer, Rabbi Safra didn’t answer. So the buyer raised his offer, “Ok, I’ll give you $200.” But the rabbi was still davening so he didn’t answer. The buyer raised his offer again. “You drive a hard bargain. $300 is my final offer.” Finally, the rabbi concluded his davening. He turned to the buyer and said, “You can have it for $100 because in my mind, I consented to the deal at the original price.”

The point of the story is not that you can’t make a buck. Rather, it is an example of “dover emet bilvavo, we are called upon to speak the truth of our hearts. Deep down, Rabbi Safra knew that if he took the higher price, he would be stealing. He knew the right thing to do. And so do we. Deep down, we know when we are telling the truth and when we are telling a lie. Deep down we know when our intent is to deceive by creating a false impression and when it is to relive by showing kindness and compassion. And with discernment and diligence, we can identify when we are told lies, we can identify false and misleading information,

“We all have a discerning heart,” Morinis teaches. At times however, its voice may be quiet or muffled or drowned out by other inner voices. Therefore, one of the primary tasks of the spiritual life is to cultivate the discerning heart (p. 171). Only then will we become the masters of truth.

Toward this end, Jewish tradition offers practical lessons in cultivating a discerning heart. These Musar teachings invite us to pause, to check our motivation, to sharpen our critical thinking, to listen deeply and honestly for an inner voice, to seek guidance among sages and within scripture. But it’s not easy. Lying is easy. Truth is difficult. The rabbis point out that falsehood (sheker) is spelled shin-kof-resh, three letters that appear together at the end of the alphabet because falsehood is easy to find and easy to spread. Truth, on the other hand, is hard to find and hard to utter. The word for truth, emet, is spelled with the first, middle and last letter of the Hebrew alphabet indicating that one must search in many places for truth, even in death.

Today, as the hour of Yizkor approaches, we turn our attention to a difficult truth, the loneliness we feel in the wake of the death of our loved ones. We think of them at this time and we are painfully aware of their absence.

When a loved one dies, the bereaved are to respond with a three word phrase, “barukh dayan haemet.” This is the phrase that appears on our congregational emails to announce a death and funeral arrangements.

Now, let’s not be confused. Even though our kids sing, “Barukh ata adonai thank you God,” not all blessings are expressions of gratitude. When we say “barukh dayan haemet,” we are not thanking God for death. Neither are they words of comfort.

“Barukh dayan emet” means “Blessed is the Judge of Truth.” It is a stark admission of the reality of death. And though we may feel anger and resentment, though we may not understand or agree with the verdict, we cannot deny it. When we say these words, we accept the truth of the moment: that she is gone, that he has passed away.

But there is another meaning of “barukh dayan emet” hidden in the letters of emet. Emet may be read as a combination of two words- “em, mother” and “met, death.” From birth to death, that is the ultimate truth of every human being. From cradle to grave, these are the boundaries of human existence. And we wouldn’t want it any other way.

If there was no death, there would be no reason to improve, to risk, to grow, to do better. If there was no end, we’d simply accept the status quo. Knowing there is an ultimatum encourages us to make the most of our time- to write that book, take that trip, speak those words. As Erica Brown writes in Happier Endings, “We begin to understand, precisely because we cannot live forever, that we have much living and loving to do now. Over time, we can learn to make death our teacher, a teacher of [ultimate] truths.”

Acknowledging the margins of life is the first step for the bereaved to make the most of their lifetime on earth. Saying “barukh dayan emet” is thus not only to accept the reality of death but to affirm of life.

The Chasidic master, Natan of Nemirov teaches that on Yom Kippur, each of us enters a place of truth where God dwells. This is symbolized by the Kohen Gadol entering the Kodesh Hakodashim, the Holy of Holies in the Temple. In that place, the Kohen saw a single spark of Divine truth that was powerful enough to illuminate his mind and purify his heart. In that place, he attained forgiveness and atonement. And that is our prayer as well.

God, on this holiest of days, help me search my soul. Give me the courage to admit what I know in my heart. Teach me to live with honesty and integrity, with kindness and sensitivity. Grant me the humility to ask for forgiveness from those I hurt by telling the truth, the strength to seek forgiveness from those I hurt by not telling the truth.  Lead me, God, on the path of truth that I might serve You in truth for the world cannot exist without Your seal of truth (based on Naomi Levi, Talking to God).