November 4, 2009
Truth and Consequences
Parashat Vayera (Genesis 18:1-22:24)
“Just tell the truth. If you tell the truth, nothing bad will happen to you.” I heard that a lot as a kid. That was code for “you won’t get in trouble.” Now, as a parent, teaching my second-graders about telling the truth is a constant struggle. Children are prone to seeing the world as black and white, right and wrong.
Adults understand that the world is often much more nuanced. While the existence of ultimate truths is debatable, we could all probably agree that telling the truth is not always as easy as it was when we were kids. In parashat Vayera, we get a healthy dose of this lesson, and it comes straight from the mouth of God.
In learning about her impending pregnancy with Isaac, Sarah and God (and we presume Abraham, although he is spoken to but doesn’t respond) have a short interaction that teaches us a lesson on truth telling. Sarah laughs to herself about the idea of getting pregnant, and then says to herself, “Now that I am withered, am I to have enjoyment, with my husband so old?” (Genesis 18:12). God then says to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, saying, ‘Shall I in truth bear a child, old as I am?’” (Genesis 18:13).
In a clear and blatant changing of the story, God seemingly “lies” to Abraham about what Sarah said. Why?
Rashi’s famous comment is “for the sake of shalom bayit [peace in the home],” basing his comments on a midrash in Genesis Rabbah (48:18). Here, God deliberately misquotes Sarah in order not to hurt Abraham’s feelings. Our tradition tells us that using the principle of truth as an excuse cannot justify words that wound another person (Eitz Chayyim Commentary, Page 102).
The lessons of our childhood get a bit murkier here in regard to truth. As children, we often “tell it as we see it.” But, as adults, we grow to learn that what we see is not often the only truth. And, as the famous aphorism says, truth is in the eye of the beholder, based on our own experiences and our own perceptions.
What happens between childhood and adulthood that makes truth telling more complicated?
Children often learn the hard way that to “tell it like I see it” might find them with fewer friends on the playground. And yet a kid who always lies, who can’t face truths, either about themselves or others, will also face challenges.
How we teach our children the notion of nuance affects what kind of adults they become. One person’s truth is another person’s pain. Hillel and Shammai teach that a “bride on her wedding day is always beautiful.” Sometimes we bend our truths in order to not hurt another person. Truth in the adult world is not black and white. In any given situation, two adults can see very different truths. Just ask a courtroom judge, a divorce mediator or a diplomat trying to make peace between two nations.
What do we learn from God in this parasha? I don’t believe we can blankly state that God teaches us lying is OK. Rather, I see this as a valuable lesson in faith in God. Faith that our mortal capacity is limited and we need support from a Divine source. Our mortal mind is often constrained to a black-and-white, call-it-as-I-see-it point of view. But a connection to God gives us a much wider lens with which to view the world, reminding us that we don’t always have the whole truth at our disposal. And fear, as overcame Sarah in the moment she was faced with God’s presence, can also be a motivating factor in how we see truth. When we are afraid, as we know from our childhoods, we are prone to stretch the truth, or just lie. We are often not present to the moment, thereby distancing ourselves from what is actually taking place.
Rabbi Mordechai Yosef, the 19th century Ishbitzer Rebbe and author of Mei HaShiloach, teaches on these verses about Sarah and God (Genesis 18:15), based on the famous quote from the Talmud, in the name of Rabbi Chanina, “All is in the hands of heaven, except the fear of heaven” (Berachot 33b). The Ishbitzer Rebbe says, “Truly everything is in the hands of heaven including the fear of heaven, yet God hid God’s way [this consciousness] in the world. In fact, it was Isaac’s attribute to recognize that even the fear of heaven comes from God, yet the world was not worthy of a consciousness as precious as this.” God helped keep the peace between Abraham and Sarah by deliberately misquoting Sarah. But, when Sarah tried to lie out of fear, God called her on it. This is the challenge of our lives: How do we balance our capacity for truth with the compassion for others? How do we live with integrity while maintaining others’ dignity? How do we seek truth in a nuanced, often gray reality?
May God help us all in the pursuit of these worthy goals. Shabbat shalom.
Joshua Levine Grater is senior rabbi at Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center (pjtc.net), a Conservative congregation in Pasadena.