We have recently read a number of examples where even the righteous and sometimes the not-so-righteous lie. For example, in our Torah Reading for this week, Toldot, Rivka encouraged Jacob to deceive his father. She may have believed that she did so because of the prophecy that Jacob would inherit his father’s estate, but it was a lie nonetheless. There are even moments when Adonai lies—for example, he does not tell Abraham the real reason that his wife Sarah laughed at the prophecy that she will bear a child, namely that her husband was so old. These examples suggest that, for us as Jews, lying is a complicated matter and no absolute rules are appropriate. To condemn lying completely might be clearer in many respects but to do so disregards situations where lying might not only be allowed but perhaps even be necessary. As we think about the lies told by Jews and righteous Gentiles during the Holocaust, we would be highly unlikely to criticize their actions. But we also recognize that it’s not always the case that “the end justifies the means.” As always, we are willing to live with some gray!
Rav Yonah, a Talmudic scholar, listed nine different categories of lies, with people cheating in business and causing other people financial loss being the worst.
There was once a man who was a tailor and he took a partner in the business. One day, a man left a jacket for altering. After the customer left, the tailor checked the garment and found $500.00 in one of the pockets. This created a great moral dilemma. Should he tell his partner??
Another form of lying, per Rav Yonah, is “changing minor details when retelling an episode”; being wrong but less wrong. The lies he cites are all related to self-aggrandizement and/or cheating other people—promising to do something for someone, knowing that one has no intention of doing so, for example. I would guess that many of us have told some of those lies in some of those categories.
On the other side, Talmudic literature provides us with stories where lying seems to be justified, where it is done for “good reasons.” But how do we interpret those stories, given that they can be understood on so many levels? Practical Halachah gives us more specific guidance. For example, we are allowed to say, “I don’t know” (even when we do) if we’re asked about information that is confidential. A wealthy person can lie to avoid ayin hara or arousing jealousy. And a man is permitted to lie to his wife about the time if she will be late for Shabbat! But even there there are limits—he can only do so if she is procrastinating, not if she is rushing to get ready because that would only increase the pressure on her.
Though there may not be clear answers, these examples as well as the examples from the Torah lead us to think about our own actions and our own willingness (or unwillingness) to tell a direct lie or to deceive others indirectly. Thinking twice about such actions can never be a bad idea! Truth is weighed against doing chesed, with chesed held up as a more desirable concept.
As Jews, we try to emulate God. A clue to God’s qualities is the recitation of his midot, his attributes, words taken directly from Torah. The listing includes, “gracious, compassionate, patient, abounding in kindness, assuring love for a thousand generations.” Nowhere here do we see the concept of truth. It can be concluded, then, that being kind takes precedence over the monolithic telling of the truth.
We know that the Torah is famously sparse when it comes to details – often we jump in a narrative and can’t help but wonder what happened in between. Or we read a very concise version of what could be a much longer story. But in today’s parsha, CHAYAY Sarah, Eliezer, right-hand man of Avraham, gives us a very detailed description of how he came to the home of Laban to find a wife for Isaac. How important is that description? We have to assume that it’s very important, since it’s so long and drawn out. But what’s really remarkable is that Eliezer tells the story TWICE. And he tells it in almost exactly the same way each time. But for the spelling of ONE WORD.
In the first iteration of the story, Eliezer repeats what he has said to Avraham: “Perhaps (OOLAI) the woman will not follow me?” He’s wondering what he should do if that is the case. The Hebrew word in this sentence is spelled with a Vav, rendering it unable to be read as anything other than oolai, that is, maybe, perhaps. But when he recounts the dialogue with Lavan later, the Hebrew word is spelled without a Vav, rendering it possible to be pronounced aylye, to me.
So—of course—we have to have a midrash here. The rabbis tell us that the two different word forms for perhaps or maybe make clear that Eliezer is ambivalent about going to find a wife for Isaac. Why would that be? He’s the faithful servant of Abraham, and has never declined to do as he instructs. The reason, according to tradition, is that Eliezer himself had a daughter. He was hoping that Avraham would give his approval for Isaac to marry the daughter to Eliezer. So, the second telling is the CLUE—if the word could be read as TO ME, perhaps Eliezer is hinting to Avraham that Isaac could just as easily be a member of HIS family. But Rashi tells us that Eliezer was a descendant of Canaan who had been cursed by Noach, so one who is accursed cannot marry one who is blessed.
So, there is no possibility that Avraham would accept Eliezer’s daughter for Isaac. And that teaches us that ONE WORD can make a WORLD OF DIFFERENCE.
Shabbat Shalom שבת שלום.
Rabbi David Grossman
In the very beginning of the Parsha of Vayayraw, God appears to Avraham, and our Sages indicate that the purpose of Hashem’s visit was to visit the sick, Bikur Cholim. Abraham had just undergone a circumcision and God was there to comfort him in his pain. Our great sage Maimonides understood that Bikur Cholim is actually part of two different Mitzvot. He writes that there is a mitzvah to emulate Hashem’s attributes. This concept is derived in the Talmud and recorded by Maimonides in his book delineating all of the Mitzvot. He writes later in this same book that there is a mitzvah for every Jew to love every other Jew and to wish for his or her brother or sister everything that he or she would want for themselves. He further writes that all of the mitzvot of Gemilut Chasadim, acts of loving-kindness (including visiting the sick) are included in the mitzvah of loving one’s fellow person. He, the Rambam, apparently understands that the mitzvah of Bikur Cholim is part of the mitzvah of loving our brothers and sisters as well as the mitzvah of emulating the ways of Hashem. The mitzvah of loving one’s brother or sister is a mitzvah “Bein Adam La’chaveiro” a commandment between people, to care for the needs of one’s fellow person. The mitzvah of emulating the ways of Hashem is a mitzvah “Bein Adam La’Makom” a commandment between mortals and God, to bring oneself closer to God and God’s ways.
Whichever type of Mitzvah it is, it is acknowledged that comforting those in pain, emotional, physical or spiritual, is a great deed of loving-kindness. In that regard, I’d like to appeal to all of us in the TBS community to let me know if you want to be part of a group that extends kindness to people in our midst who are in need of comfort. Please let me or Rhoda Kanet know if you’d want to make a phone call to someone who would appreciate it, or to perform some act of compassion on their behalf. Also, if you are in need of a call or any type of outreach, please let us know. This is a great Mitzvah and should be purused!
Thanks, David (617) 838-9166
The story of Avraham begins with our Parsha of Lech Lecha, as he is center stage for the birth of the Jewish people. Hashem directs Avraham to leave his homeland and Lech Lecha “go for your own good” (12:1). Rashi tells us that this command form with the added expression “for yourself” indicates that this will be for Avraham’s benefit and for his own good. Many times in life we may find that that which usually tastes good is not always good for you. Here Hashem is saying to Avraham that “your departure from your home and your homeland will be good for you; you will benefit from it; and you will enjoy it.” If this is true, asks the Sefat Emet (Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Gerer, 1847-1905), what kind of test was this for Avraham? If Avraham fulfilled that which God commanded him to, he would benefit and enjoy it. This does not seem like much of a test to be included in the list of the ten tests to which Hashem subjected Avraham. The Sefat Emet answers that Avraham fulfilled all that God commanded him only because Hashem said so. He never did anything that God said for his own benefit. Consequently, it was Avraham’s attitude and perspective that allowed him to fulfill the test and make it beneficial to him in a spiritual level.
In 12:5 the Torah indicates that Avraham and Sarah had amassed “souls that they made in Charan.” Rashi quotes the Midrash that states that Avraham and Sarah worked with many people and converted them to their newfound teachings of monotheism, yet nowhere does the Torah mention what happened to these converts. Many commentators suggest that after Avraham died, these converts returned to their former lives. Perhaps it was Avraham’s personal charisma and charming personality that attracted these people to begin with. After he died, they could not attach themselves to Yitzchak, since Yitzchak had a different personality entirely. In any event, most all the commentators believe that these converts went home afterwards, not to continue in their newfound beliefs and traditions that Avraham and Sarah taught them.
During the famine in Canaan Avraham takes his family south into Egypt. He was fearful of the attraction that his wife Sarah would generate because, as Avraham states in 12:11 “see now I have known that you are a woman of beautiful appearance.” At this stage Sarah has to be at least 65 years old. Many commentators are perplexed by this statement. Is Avraham not aware that his wife is beautiful until now? We do realize that love masks an objective standard of assessing beauty. The Vilna Gaon explains that the Talmud tells us (Megillah 13) that Esther was pale and had a greenish tinge of coloring in her face, but because of her tremendous character of chesed she projected a certain beauty to people who saw her; she just appeared beautiful because of her character. So, it is possible that the husband sees his wife as beautiful, but in actuality his perception is blinded by his own love for her, or perhaps by her character traits. Once Avraham reached this stage of his life and the age that they both reached, he realized that Sarah’s beauty was objective and visible, and not a product of her kind character which she possessed as well. The question and the Vilna Gaon’s comments are quite telling and real today in our assessment of a person’s beautiful looks.