Truth be told

Truth be told

Mishpatim | Exodus 21:1-24:18

I once taught a class whose purpose it was to introduce Midrashic literature to an audience of very intelligent individuals who had only limited experience with primary Jewish texts. I attempted to expose the students to several simple yet illustrative passages from the literature, asking them to come up with titles of their own that would fit the passage under study.

One passage led to a particularly vigorous discussion. Although this passage is found in Midrash Genesis Rabba 8:5, it has a direct connection to a verse in this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim. Here is the Midrash in question, loosely translated:

Said Rabbi Simon: “When the Holy One, blessed be He, first considered creating Adam, the ministering angels were divided. Some opposed his creation; others advocated it. As the verse in Psalms (85:11) reads, ‘Benevolence and Truth meet; Justice and Peace kiss.’ The angel Benevolence favored man’s creation, because [man] is so capable of great benevolence. But the angel Truth countered that man should not be created, because he is hopelessly full of falsehood. Justice sided with Benevolence, arguing that man could behave justly, while Peace allied with Truth and resisted man’s creation, fearing man’s incurable passion for strife and war. What did the Holy One do? He grasped Truth and cast it down to the earth. The angels pleaded with the Holy One to restore Truth to heaven. The verse in Psalms continues, ‘Truth sprouts up from the earth.’”

The variety of titles which the students proffered in response to my “assignment” reflects the differing lessons they derived from it. One titled the passage “Close Call.” She was impressed by the fragility of mankind’s very existence and how we were almost not created at all. Another suggested “The Great Debate,” emphasizing that conflict and discord exist even among the heavenly angels. A third student preferred the title “Human Nature,” considering the theme of this passage to be the dual nature of human beings.

The students were unanimous, though, in expressing their curiosity about the “end of the story.” Did the Almighty acquiesce to the pleas of the angels and restore Truth to its celestial glory? While most standard commentaries are convinced that He yielded to his angelic advisers, some insist otherwise. Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, for example, maintains that Truth remains forever elusive and exceedingly rare, a castaway to this very day. 

The ultimate basis for the primacy of truth in the Jewish tradition, however, is not in the words of Genesis, nor even in the Midrash. Rather, it is to be found here, in Mishpatim:

The verse in question reads, “Keep far from a false word.” Note that the Torah does not admonish us not to lie. That prohibition is to be found elsewhere, in Leviticus 19:11, which reads, “You shall not deal deceitfully or falsely one with another.” There the Torah says “don’t.” That’s the customary biblical language for a prohibition. Our verse, on the other hand, does not tell us not to express false words. It tells us to keep far from them, to remove ourselves from falsehood.

What is the antidote to the “big lies” that surround us? There is but one answer, and that is the consistent and articulate enunciation of the truth and the avoidance of even traces of falsehood. The secret of truth’s triumph rests in the brief three-word phrase in this week’s Torah portion: “midvar sheker tirchak” — not only “don’t lie,” but “keep far from a false word.”

Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb is executive vice president emeritus of the Orthodox Union.

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