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Rosh HaShanah 2018/5779

09/25/2018 10:00:17 AM


Rabbi Howard L. Jaffe

On truth – Rosh Hashanah 5779/2018

As this is the season for confession, I would like to make one.

About 2 ½ years ago, I was in Israel, and attended erev Shabbat services at a wonderful community at Moshav Nahalal, in the Jezreel Valley, about a half hour drive east of Haifa, where I was staying with friends. I called Irene, mindful of the strict Israeli law allowing only hands-free calling from a cell phone, so had the phone on speaker, but without a cradle to rest it in, held it in my right hand, away from my face, believing I was following the law by not holding the phone up to my face. I suddenly noticed the unmistakable flashing of the light of a police car, hung up, and of course, immediately pulled over to the side of the road. The police officer got on his speaker and barked, “Kadima” - move up. I stayed put. He shouted again, “Kadima”, even louder.

I stayed put. He got out of the car, and by the time he got to my window, I was not surprised to see that he was hopping mad. Preemptively, I rolled down my window, and, I am not proud to say, I looked up at him, and I said, “I am sorry, I don’t speak Hebrew. I’m visiting from America.”

The second part was true, the first part, not so much. He switched to English, and berated me for operating the phone as I was. When I responded that I thought that it was okay to do so as long as I was holding the phone away from my face, and using the speaker, I was being honest. I really did believe that. But I also knew that I must have been wrong or he would not have pulled me over.

So while that part of my response was true, the part that I figured would likely have the most impact and give me the best chance of getting off without a ticket, my status as an ignorant American tourist, was at best partly true. After looking at my American drivers license, noting my not at all Hebrew sounding first name, and explaining to me what the actual law was, he let me off with a warning.

And remembering where I was, I instinctively and automatically thanked him, in English, and then said, with a perfect Hebrew accent, “Shabbat shalom.”

I almost smacked myself in the forehead. The next half second or so felt like an eternity until he smiled and said “Shabbat shalom” to me.

I had gotten away with it.

And I felt awful.

I lied to get out of a situation rather than face it and take responsibility. And I had made a small tear in the fabric of our world.

Who knows? Maybe if I had moved forward when he told me to, and then asked if we could speak English to make sure I could explain myself best, or spoken to him in my decent enough Hebrew, and told him the simple truth about misunderstanding the law, he still would have let me off with a warning. Maybe not. And if not, I would have had to pay a fine. So I convinced myself that I had an opportunity to get out of a situation by lying in which the other actor would have no idea, so no harm done. But there was harm done. I lied, straight up, because I did not want to face the consequences that telling the truth might have brought.

Up until now, I have shared that story with very few people, because honestly, I am embarrassed by my behavior (I guess I’ve blown that out of the water now). At least one person thought it was brilliant. Maybe, but that does not make it right. That is not how I choose to live. It was cowardly and it was wrong. I know what I will do if I ever get pulled over again.

And if you are going to ask me, was that the biggest lie that I have told in recent years, my answer is yes, actually, I believe it was. There have been countless others, of course. As there have been for all of us.

Various psychology studies over the last 20 years indicate that the average person lies 150 – 200 times a day. Most of the time, these are not meaningful or consequential lies – they more along the lines of insincerely saying “it is good to see you,” or answering with “I’m fine” when I really am not. And truth be told - see what I did there? - sometimes, lying is not only acceptable, but indicated, like telling someone “it is my pleasure,” when really, there are a lot of other things you would rather be doing..

Jewish tradition enumerates for us exactly when it is permissible, and even appropriate, to, as the rabbis call it, “change the truth”.

Most of the time, those instances fall under the category “for the sake of peace,” mipnei darkei shalom. In fact, we read in the Torah that even God did that. In Genesis chapter 21, the text that precedes the one we just read, and is actually read in traditional synagogues today, God approached Sarah, then 89 years old, to tell her that she would bear a child in a year’s time. She asked how that could be, given how old Abraham was. Immediately afterwards, when God retells the story to Abraham, God tells Abraham that Sarah said, and I quote, “"How can I give birth when I am old?"

God changed Sarah’s words to spare Abraham’s feelings. And that principle is applied throughout Jewish tradition that it is appropriate to, in the words of the Talmud, “change the truth,” to spare someone’s feelings when it will do no other damage. In fact, they tell us, there are occasions when it is required. We are required to change the truth!

In fact, there are five categories of lies that are acceptable according to Jewish tradition:

lying to preserve the cause of peace, not to hurt another person’s feelings, or to provide comfort;

lying for the sake of modesty or in order not to appear arrogant;

lying for the sake of decency, i.e., not telling the truth about intimate matters;

lying to protect one’s property from thieves;

and lying in a situation where honesty might cause oneself or another person harm.

And these are the only circumstances when lying is acceptable. Notice one category that is conspicuously absent: lying to unrighteously preserve one’s self-interest or for his or her own gain.

Because when we do so, Jewish tradition tells us, we are thieves, in fact, the worst kind of thieves.

Our sages teach that there are in fact seven types of thieves and, of these, the worst is the one who "steals the minds" of people, a category known as g’nevat daat, theft of knowledge. The Talmud has special rules about this category, defined as intentionally fooling someone, and causing him or her to have a mistaken assumption, belief, and/or impression which is to your benefit - even if no one is directly hurt by your behavior. Like, for example, pretending not to understand a police officer in a foreign country.

G’nevat daat includes situations that might not seem all that egregious, but which result in something as simple as someone receiving undeserved goodwill. An example: a person should not invite someone to a social gathering, and pretend that the invitation is sincere, if they are only doing so knowing that the other person cannot attend, and if they could, would not be invited. In a business setting, the consequences are more tangible, and would include misleading customers into thinking that they are getting a special deal when they are not. All of this, common as it is, is literally considered theft in Jewish tradition.

Other kinds of deceptions that are prohibited include making an item seem more valuable than it actually is by painting it or otherwise artificially beautifying it. A modern example: perhaps you read about the fishmonger in Kuwait who was shut down just last week when it was discovered that he was placing plastic googly eyes on the fish he was selling to make them look fresher. Or consider the Talmudic teaching that is forbidden to sift the beans at the top of a sack, because it will make them look better what is underneath. Have you ever purchased prepackaged produce, only to bring it home and find out that while what was visible was appealing, what was underneath was a lot less so?

We encounter these kinds of thefts of knowledge every day. And while they may seem small, they amount to actual, if limited, cost to the one who was deceived. And every time it happens, the fabric of the world is a bit more torn.

And of course, some cases of g’nevat daat, whether intentionally creating a false impression or downright lying have consequences that are a lot more significant than the purchase of old fish or some bad strawberries.

What makes g’nevat daat so heinous, what makes all lies that are told with deceitful intention to benefit the liar, so heinous, is that it is, in the end, they constitute not only theft, but an abuse of power. The one who is able to lie or mislead successfully to their own benefit does so at the expense of others, because they have the power to do so.

And every time that kind of lie is told, the fabric of our world becomes a little bit more torn. And the more consequential the lie, the more powerful the position of the one telling the lie, the greater the tear.

And all too often, the tear is irreparable.

In her book, Traveling with Ghosts, Shannon Fowler, a marine biologist, recounts how she assured her fiancé, Sean, that there was nothing dangerous in the waters that they were about to enter in Thailand.

When he rushed to shore and fell to the ground Shannon had no idea what had happened. There were welts all over his legs, and he had stopped breathing. He was gone. She somehow wound up at a doctor’s office, where two young Israeli women who she did not know, Anat and Talia, accompanied her. The doctor urged her to sign the Thai death certificate, but before she did, the two young women were with her insisted that doctor translate.

He said, “Cause of death—drunk drowning.”

She was, of course, in shock, and unable to respond. Her two Israeli companions pointed to the welts all over his legs and were steadfast in keeping her from signing a certificate that said that.

Eventually, the doctor relented -- and said it must have been an allergic reaction. Two days later, Anat and Talia uncovered a story of a similar death—which prompted them to ask more questions. It took years, but Shannon finally pieced together the truth.

Sean had not been allergic.

There is a venomous species of jellyfish in Thai waters whose sting simply kills.

While villagers claimed that his death was the first in many years, Shannon later discovered that police had posted signs to avoid the water for that very reason. Out of fear that tourists would disappear, the villagers had taken the signs down. Shannon came to discover that hundreds of people were getting stung and killed all over the tropics in deaths that were regularly ruled drunk drownings in order to protect the local economy.

Talk about g’nevat daat!

Is it not astonishing that there are people who will lie for their own self-interest, no matter how dangerous it is for others? And that there are others who perceive themselves as sharing in that self-interest, and will do everything in their power to protect the ones directly responsible as well as themselves so as not to have to face the consequences?

If it was not for Anat and Talia, who insisted on truth, and for Shannon, who did not let go of what she knew was wrong, even more damage and carnage would have resulted. Clearly, those who benefited from the lies were able to quell their consciences enough to maintain their self-interest.

And a large tear was made the fabric of the world.

It takes stubborn, honest actors who refuse to stand by and accept dangerous lies to keep others from being hurt, and keep the tear from being even more significant. And we have to be those actors.

On a larger scale, there have been dark periods, when the world has gone backwards, when societies built on power alone, and so, on falsehood, determined the fate of too many. But time and again, sometimes after deep darkness, the human will and the determination to create a world of truth and justice have eventually won out, in largest measure because there were always those who refused to accept that the world as they knew it necessarily had to be the world as it might be.

The essential message of this day, of Rosh Hashanah, is that neither we nor the world in which we live have to be as we have been or as it has been - but the change that needs to happen can only come from within - and will only happen when we embrace the truth that we have the power to make it so. Because the worst lie of all is to declare that we are powerless.

In just a moment, we will turn to the sound of the shofar. We do well to remember that the shofar can actually be seen as a symbol of power in two different ways. The horn is an animal's source of power and physical strength. May it remind us of our own power and strength. And etymologically, the word shofar is related to the word shipur, improvement. May its sound remind us of the power we have to improve ourselves, as its blasts awaken us to the truth that for one reason and one reason alone were we created, that we might improve the world in which we live.

Let us turn our books then, to page 284, as we open our hearts and our spirits to the sound of the shofar.

Tue, June 6 2023 17 Sivan 5783