One day Hershel of Ostropol was traveling along the road and stopped overnight at an inn. He was famished, but had no money in his pocket. He sat down at a table and said to the innkeeper, “I’m dying of hunger. Please give me something to eat.”
The innkeeper didn’t like the look of Hershel, dirty and unkempt, his clothes ragged. The innkeeper was pretty sure Hershel would not be able to pay his bill.
“I’m sorry, sir,” said the innkeeper, “we’re all out of food.”
Hershel sat quietly for a moment. Then he said slowly and quietly, “In that case, I’m going to have to do what my father did.”
The innkeeper grew frightened. What did Hershel’s father do? “What did your father do?” the innkeeper asked.
“My father did what he had to do,” Hershel replied in a low growl.
Hearing this, the innkeeper grew more frightened. What kind of man had his father been? A thief? A murderer? Even worse?
“Just a minute, sir,” the innkeeper said, and rushed into the kitchen, reemerging minutes later with a tray laden with fish, chicken, black bread, and vegetables.
Hershel ate with gusto, polishing off the last forkful in a matter of minutes. “This is the most wonderful meal I’ve had in many weeks,” he told the innkeeper.
“I’m glad,” the innkeeper said in relief. “But could you tell me, sir, what was it that your father did?”
“My father?” asked Hershel. “Oh, yes, my father. Well, when my father couldn’t afford anything to eat, he went to bed hungry.”
Hershel got a lot of mileage from his deception. He correctly presumes that the innkeeper will interpret his words as a physical threat. How many of us would applaud the outright lying of the innkeeper, or the implicit lying of Hershel? Yet we root for Hershel; his clever deceit elicits our smiles, laughter, and approval.
In this week’s parashah, Lech Lecha, Abraham practices deceit, much as Hershel does. Famine drives Abraham to Egypt where, fearing that the pharaoh will kidnap his wife to enlarge his harem, he tells Sarah:
“I know what a beautiful woman you are. If the Egyptians see you, and think, ‘She is his wife,’ they will kill me and let you live. Please say that you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you, and that I may remain alive thanks to you.’” (Genesis 12:11-12)
Predictably, the pharaoh has Sarah brought to him, and rewards Abraham handsomely:
And because of her, it went well with Avram; he acquired sheep, oxen, assess, male and female slaves, she-asses, and camels (Genesis 12:16).
But God intervenes, afflicting Pharaoh and his household with plagues before Pharaoh has a chance to take advantage of his new prize. Pharaoh, realizing what this means, returns Sarah to Abraham’s tent, castigates Abraham for lying, and exiles him from Egypt.
To be precise, Abraham does not tell an outright lie. He tells a half-truth. Sarah is her husband’s half-sister (Genesis 20:12). So, too, Hershel. Strictly speaking, he tells the truth, but does so in a way that leads the innkeeper to interpret it otherwise.
Both Hershel and Abraham are unquestionably deceitful. They are not alone. Psychologists’ research reveals that most of us lie 150-200 times each day. Yes, 150-200 times every day. (You might enjoy Pamela Meyer’s TED Talk on the subject of spotting a liar. (http://www.ted.com/talks/pamela_meyer_how_to_spot_a_liar.html) If God’s seal is truth, should we not avoid lies at all times and at all costs?
The Rabbis take up the question of lying in the context of a discussion of how to praise a bride on her wedding day.
The Rabbis taught: How does one dance before the bride [i.e., how does one praise her]? The School of Shammai says: We praise the bride as she is. The School of Hillel says: We say that she is a beautiful and graceful bride. The School of Shammai said to the School of Hillel: If she was lame or blind, does one say that she is a beautiful and graceful bride? But the Torah said, Distance yourself from a false matter (Exodus 23:7). The School of Hillel said to the School of Shammai: According to your opinion, if someone made an inferior purchase in the marketplace, should one praise it or deprecate it in his eyes. Surely, one should praise it. From here the Sages said: A person’s disposition should always be pleasant with people. (B.Ketubot 16b-17a)
The Rabbis are saying: Be nice and say kind things; don’t wound the feeling of the bride. The discussion continues in tractate Yebamot:
R. Ilai said in the name of R. Elazar son of R. Shimon: It is permitted for a person to deviate from the truth in the interest of peace, as it says: Your father [Jacob] commanded before his death, saying: So shall you say to Joseph, “O Please forgive the offense of your brothers and their sin for they have treated you so wickedly” (Genesis 50:16-17).
R. Natan said it is a commandment [to deviate from the truth in the interest of peace], as it says: And Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears of it, he will kill me” (I Samuel 16:2).
The School of R. Yishmael taught: Great is the cause of peace, seeing that for its sake, even the Holy One, blessed be God, changed the truth, for at first it is written, “My lord [i.e., Abraham] is old (Genesis 18:12), while afterward it is written, ”And I am old” (Genesis 18:13). [Sarah expresses disbelief that she can conceive because Abraham is old, but God reports to Abraham that she said she cannot conceive because she is old.] (B.Yebamot 65b)
While R. Ilai says lying is permitted to preserve peace, R. Natan says lying is required to preserve peace. In fact, so important is peace, that even God told a lie when reporting Sarah’s words to Abraham. Is this what Ralph Waldo Emerson had in mind when he said, “Truth is beautiful, without doubt; but so are lies”?
Mip-nei dar-kei shalom (for the sake of the ways of peace) we may, or perhaps ought to, be less than truthful to protect the feelings of others. This would include confirming that the bride is beautiful; that your friend looks good in his/her new outfit; and that you had a wonderful time at a certain party. We call these “white lies.” In such cases, it is helpful to recall the words of Samuel Butler: “The best liar is he who makes the smallest amount of lying go the longest way.”
And certainly, the Rabbis affirm, we may lie to preserve life, as well as to protect property from thieves, and to avoid the appearance or reality of arrogance and immodesty. The reality is that there are times we need to shade the truth or lie outright. The reality is also that we prone to lie -- apparently 150-200 times each day. Midrash suggests that this is in our nature:
When God contemplated the creation of humanity, he consulted Compassion, Peace, Justice, and Truth. Truth said: “Don’t create them! They will be false and deceitful!” What did God do? God cast Truth to the earth and created humanity. (Bereishit Rabbah 8:5)
It is not always wise or kind to tell the truth, but this is far from blanket permission to lie whenever it is convenient. Returning to the staggering number of 150-200 lies day in and day out, I wonder: Are we even aware each time we deviate from the truth? It might behoove each of us to spend some time each day monitoring ourselves: When did we lie? Why did we deviate from the truth? Was our reason legitimate?
Rav Chanina said: …the seal of the Holy One blessed be God is TRUTH (emet)... (B.Yoma 69b).
Perhaps our seal can move a bit closer to God’s. If we can at least be honest with ourselves, and know when and why we avoid the truth, we might be able to be more honest with others where there is no legitimate reason to lie.
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman