Truth

Our Cantor just sang the beautiful words of Psalm 34 with a melody I had not heard since my teenage years. Mi Ha’ish…

Whoever of you who loves life and desires to see many good days/ Keep your tongue from evil and your lips from telling lies/ Turn from evil and do good, seek peace and pursue it.

Our Jewish tradition is one that reveres the telling of truth as an act of goodness. I am reminded on this Shabbat of Parashat Noach, of an aggadah, a story that our rabbis told about a lie:

In the time of Noah, the Lie tries to sneak aboard the Ark with the animals. But Noah stops it by telling the Lie that he is only allowing pairs to come on board. So the Lie goes about seeking a partner so that it may come aboard the boat that Noah is building.

The Lie approaches Beauty but Lie is found to be too ugly. The Lie tries to pair up with Truth but is found to be incompatible. The Lie then goes to visit Wickedness who was in the midst of worshipping an idol. Wickedness asks the Lie, what he will give to come as Lie’s partner? The Lie answers: “I will give you whatever I get from lying”.

Wickedness loves that answer and pairs up with Lie. Together they go to Noah, who, now they are two of a kind, has to let them board the Ark. So the Lie survives the flood. And we are taught, whenever a Lie is told, even to this day, Wickedness grows.

The Psalm just sung tells us: “Keep your lips from telling lies.” Truth is regarded as a virtue in a human being, something that not only adds to the beautify of life and soul, but a trait which promotes the trustworthiness of an individual.

Which begs a question I have been pondering this election cycle. Are truth and trustworthiness equatable?

Because of the ability to use search engines for fact checking nowadays, the candidates of this election, more than any other I remember, have been subject to having every word they utter verified. The media asks constantly are they lying? Are they to be trusted? Equating truth and trustworthiness closely together. Character is measured by each candidate’s ability to accurately speak words to the finest nuances of truth.

The question of truth and trustworthiness was raised for me in another context last week. In the recent, based on a true-story, film “Denial,”, we watch the events around the Court Case between Holocaust Professor Deborah Lipstadt, and Holocaust Denier David Irving. Deborah  Lipstadt  is accused by David Irving of libel when she declared him a Holocaust Denier. Under the English legal system, the burden of proof was for Dr. Lipstadt’s legal team to prove that David Irving knew he was lying when claiming that the Holocaust did not occur. The trustworthiness of Irving had to be denounced completely, for Deborah Lipstadt to win the case. Lies and wickedness are linked in the plot. Truth and trustworthiness linked hand-in-hand.

What is fascinating about this link of truth and trustworthiness, is that we know from scientific studiesis that no individual can be 100% truthful all of the time. Our memories distort with distance and sometimes with re-telling of events. And there are cases, one might argue, when the near truth is good enough.

Once when President Franklin D. Roosevelt was preparing a speech, he needed some economic statistics to back up a point that he was trying to make. His advisers told him that it would take six months to get accurate figures. “In that case,” FDR said, “I’ll just use these rough estimates.” And he wrote down some numbers in his text. “They are reasonable figures and they will support my point.”

“Besides,” he added as an afterthought, “it will keep my critics busy for at least six months while they prove me wrong!”

In other words, the ideal of complete truth, for FDR did not matter. It was the “truth” of the point he was trying to make that was the focus.

Likewise, as I was watching the film “Denial” in the movie theater, it occurred to me that this story about the importance of truth in a libel case, was ironically based on a true story. But it was not true. Adjustments had been made. Those of you who have met Deborah Lipstadt, a wonderful force of nature, maybe a little dubious that she is quite the jogger portrayed in the film. But does it take away from the essential plot and message which teaches truths about the case, the English legal system, and most importantly the Holocaust?

The story of Noah is another case, where 100% accuracy in truth is not found. Ancient Near Eastern texts bring us the Epic of Gilgamesh from the Sumerian tradition. Another flood story. Was the Noah just an updated rendition of that widely-popular myth? Does it matter if there really was a world flood or not? Or whether an Ark was built? Or where Mount Ararat, the landing place of the Ark is? The truth of the story is not found in history, but in what can be learned theologically from the Biblical story – the promise to  humankind that God will never destroy the world again – in other words that God cares for us and is forgiving of humanity.

So are truth and trustworthiness always equatably linked? Perhaps to some extent. Sometimes the amount of lies, like in the case of David Irving, lend itself to what we would define as wickedness. Sometimes, when a politician has been caught in lie after lie, we start to ask serious questions as to whether they are worthy of our trust.

However, Truth I would suggest is in our tradition an ideal virtue. Something we strive towards rather than are humanly able to uphold all the time. Our tradition holds many virtues out as ideals. Rabban Simeon Gamliel says in Pirke Avot: “The world endures on account of three things: Justice, Peace and Truth. He is referring to these as traits and attitudes towards which we need to strive, for the world to be a place in which all can live.

In the Talmud we are taught that the letters which make up the word truth – emet: aleph, mem and tav, rest on two legs. However, the letters which make up the word lie- sheker: shin, kuf and resh rest on one leg. This suggests that when things are done with the intention of truth they have a firm base, while if they are done with the intention of falsehood, they are not on a firm base.

The Talmud continues the analogy of these letters of the alphabet. The letters of truth – emet are far apart in their order in the Hebrew alphabet, one being the first letter of the alphabet, one being the middle letter of the alphabet, and one being the final letter of the alphabet. The letters for lie-sheker are close together one following the other. We are taught from this that is always difficult to act in truth, while falsehood is always close to one’s ear.

Suggesting that to be 100% truthful all the time is not as easy as being 100% false all the time.

When Lies and Wickedness snuck upon the Ark according to our Midrash, I like to think that Truth, who had been approached by Lie to be a partner, and rejected Lie for incompatibility, then went off to find its own partner. Truth and Effort linked up, and as soon as they saw Lie and Wickedness climb into the Ark, they approached Noah to be allowed inside as well. Noah opened the door of the Ark wide to make sure that that pair made its way into the ship’s hold.

Mi Ha’ish…

Whoever of you who loves life and desires to see many good days/ Keep your tongue from evil and your lips from telling lies/ Turn from evil and do good, seek peace and pursue it.

Says the Psalm. It is presenting us with a behavior to strive towards.

May we and those people around us, always  be the “Ish,” the human beings that put Effort alongside the ideal of Truth, so that our days are good, our actions are good, and the pursuit of peace is always sought. And if we are not 100% in truth, that our Effort is recognized as an endeavor that makes us trustworthy.

 

 

 

 

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