All in the Family
Truth is Full of Lies
It’s hard to admit, but all people lie, to a certain extent. Even those good people who value honesty above most other things, sometimes lie. As a justification, we consider our untruths to be ‘white lies’. Is there really a difference between lies and white lies?
Yitzchak & Rivkah’s twins
This week’s parshat Toldot reading, begins with the newly wed couple, Yitzchak and Rivkah, praying hard for the birth of children (Bereishit 25:21). They had to pray twenty years for this, and then finally Rivkah’s prayers were answered and she conceives. But something is wrong, she experiences great pain and discomfort. She is informed that she is carrying twins; not just twins, but warring twins, twins who are fated, from the womb, to be in deadly competition. This became ever more apparent as Yaakov and Esav grew, and Yaakov immersed himself in learning Torah while Esav became a mighty hunter. (Bereishit 25:24).
Yaakov and Esav
Was that an early sign for the future? The enmity of the brothers, the disagreement between Rivkah, who loves Yaakov, and her husband Yitzchak, who prefers Esav, this family may be blessed with children, but it feels like a curse as well.
The 9th Commandment
“Lo teshaker” is one of the Ten Commandments, how come there are so many lies within this family? The Torah obviously admonishes against falsehood in Shemot (23:7): “midaber sheker tirchak, distance yourself from a false word,” and in Vayikra (19:11): “…v’lo teshakru, ish l’amito, a man shall not lie to his friend.” So how come we have biblical heros tell so many lies.
Yaakov Ish Tam
Besides, of the three Avot, Yaakov is most closely associated with the midah of “truth.” In parshat Toldot (25:27), Yaakov is described as an “ish tam”, which Rashi explains to mean an honest individual, “ela kelibo ken piv, mi she-eino charif leramot karui tam”. In Michah 7:20, as well – “Tetayn emet le’Yaakov”, You have given truth to Yaakov. So how come Yaakov lied?
Tell me sweet little lies
In parshat Toldot, we see Yaakov acting with apparent deceit when he presents himself to Yitzchak as Esav. When Yitzchak asks, “Who are you, my son?,” and Yaakov responds, “It is I, Esav, your firstborn.” To be sure, Rashi interprets Yaakov’s response as technically truthfully by splitting Yaacov’s words into two separate statements, “It is I” and “Esav is your firstborn,” so that there was no falsehood. But Rashi’s interpretation seems forced, and other commentators disagree and explain that Yaacov deceived Yitzchak, in order to achieve a just result.
The question of lying for the purpose of achieving a greater good emerges from other stories in Tanach. In Bereshit (18:13) that when G-d reported to Avraham that Sarah had laughed at the prospect of having a child, G-d omitted Sarah’s statement that “my husband is old!” in order to preserve the peace between Avraham and Sarah (Baba Metzia 87a explaining “how great is the sake of peace,” that G-d omitted Sarah’s statement about Avraham’s age when speaking with Avraham).
The Town of Kushta
The g’mara (Sanhedrin 97a) tells of a town called Kushta where the inhabitants never lied, and as a reward, no one ever died before their time. A certain rabbi moved there and married one of the inhabitants. They had two sons. One day the rabbi’s wife was sitting and washing her hair, when a neighbor came by and knocked at the door. Thinking to himself that it would not be etiquette to tell the visitor that his wife was washing herself, the rabbi called out, ‘She is not here.’ Soon after, his two sons died. When the inhabitants of Kushta inquired about the cause of this tragedy, the rabbi related to them what had happened. At which point, they asked him to leave the town so as not cause additional deaths. The story of Kushta is allegorical, and intended to highlight that truth endures, while falsehood does not. Truth represents spiritual perfection, which is why the town’s inhabitants never died prematurely.
What guidelines can we follow in determining when it is permissible to engage in deception, and when we are required to be truthful?
Rav Avigdor Nebenzahl explains that there are values (such as “peace” or pikuach nefesh) that may trump the truth at times. But even if such circumstances, one should think privately in their mind that what he is saying is false, and he is only speaking deceitfully for the greater good.
Truth versus lies
If your wife asked you “honey do you like my new hair style.” and you think she looks absolutely ridiculous would you tell her the truth? Or would you tell her a white lie “Yes honey, I LOVE IT” just to maintain peace between a husband and wife?
Rav Dessler explains that truth should not be defined based on what is factually true, but what is in conformity with the will of G-d, the Torah. Whereas falsehood is that not necessarily something which is factually false, but rather that which is contrary to the values of the Torah. Thus, even if a certain statement may appear false factually, if making it furthers an important Torah value, then, in fact, one has adhered to the truth.
When Yitzchak sensed that his end was approaching, at the age of 123 years old, he summoned Esav to give him a blessing. In fact Yitzchak, who was blind, was fooled into believing that Esav was righteous. However, Rivkah swiftly acted on a prophetic instruction that the blessings must be given to Yaakov. She arranged for Yaakov to impersonate Esav and receive the blessings. Yitzchak instructed Esav to hunt food for him, so that he would be in a joyous state when giving the blessings so that the blessings would have a powerful effect.
Yaakov successfully and deservingly took the blessing (Bereishit 27:28-29), and when Esav in frustration revealed to his father that Yaakov had bought the birthright, Yitzchak realized that the birthright has been bestowed correctly on Yaakov and confirmed the blessings he had given Yaakov (Bereishit 27:33). Yaakov also give Esav a blessing, it was nonetheless a blessing which very much affected the Jews over the course of history for better and for worse (Bereishit 27:39-40).
The choices we make
In conclusion, the Torah requires us to be attentive in life to the possibility of conflicting halachic rules, and think carefully before we act to make sure that we are making the right choice, and acting in conformity with Torah values. Shavua Tov!!
Rabbi Yakira is the founder of Hebrew Guru LLC online Hebrew Academy, a blogger contributor at Times of Israel. She created the color coded vowels method, helping students of all ages, with different learning capabilities, and with different religions and beliefs, master reading Hebrew, and the Hebrew bible. Her Book Series LEARN TO READ HEBREW IN 18 STEPS, endorsed by many including: Dennis Prager, and Rabbi David Wolpe who wrote “A clear, lucid and immensely helpful guide to learning Hebrew. Takes the reader by the hand and introduces the holy tongue in living color.”