Rabbi David Walk
This week our Torah reading is built upon a lie, but we're told in parshat Mishpatim: mi'dvar sheker tirchak, keep far from any false matter (Exodus 22:7). Please, don't let that stop you from reading on! It appears that we're never allowed to lie. However, that context is about court proceedings, so one could conclude that we're discussing perjury or forged facts, which might be described as 'fake news', but not by me. The next verse over there in Exodus prohibits bribery, because it blinds even the most righteous. Even though parshat Mishpatim does seem to jump from legal issue to moral matter to ritual topic, the framework here strongly implies a judicial setting. However, that has not stopped our Sages from generalizing our pithy passage into a blanket condemnation of lying. But that's only the more midrashic rabbis, the more halachic commentaries (like Maimonides) don't count 'thou shalt not lie' as one of our 613 mitzvot. With this short intro, let's dive into Ya'akov's world as presented in this week's Torah reading.
I feel like chanting 'Ya'akov is a liar, Ya'akov is a…', but our Sages have labeled him ish ha'emet, the man of truth. This brings us to the dramatic confrontation between Ya'akov and Yitzchak in chapter 27 of Genesis. After Yitzchak has commanded Esav to hunt for the game which he favors as a prelude to receiving the family blessings (not the birthright), Rivka connives with Ya'akov to preempt the blessing ceremony. When Yitzchak pointedly asks who has brought these delicacies, the now cornered Ya'akov declares, 'I am Esau your firstborn. I have done as you have spoken to me. Please rise, sit down and eat of my game, so that your soul will bless me (verse 19).' Certainly, sounds like a fib. I believe that the Washington Post gave it 4 Pinnochio's, and Politifact rated it Pants on Fire.
The more halachic commentaries aren't really phased, because they don't consider lying as prohibited per se. They feel comforted by this verse from Jeremiah, 'Everyone deceives his neighbor, and no one speaks the truth; they have taught their tongue to speak lies (Jeremiah 9:5).' This concept is tied to Midrashim concerning Aharon, who apparently told white lies for greater peace, and the Talmud establishes it as a principle, 'It is permitted for a person to amend the truth for the sake of peace (Yevamot 65b).' Think of your wife or mother asking what you think of their new dress. If you don't see the advantages of lying at that moment, please send me an email, we need to talk. We see that the need for peace outweighs the importance of honesty. Yes, President Kim, I love your haircut, where can I get one just like it?
What about those who feel strongly that lying is so wrong that they can't bring themselves to call Ya'akov a liar? Well, here come the contortions. Rashi quotes the Midrash Tanchuma which splits Ya'akov's statement into two parts, 'He meant: I am the one who is bringing you food, while Esav is your first born.' Mission accomplished, sort of.
But here's the new twist, which I find enlightening. I was learning on Skype with some former neighbors from Connecticut, and we came across a verse in Psalms: Deliver me, Lord, from lying lips, from a deceitful tongue (Psalms 120:2). The straight forward explanation for the verse is that the poet (presumably King David, but this poem isn't signed) wants to be saved from tale bearers and slanderers in the community. We all know what damage lashon hara can wreak. I then saw a cool approach to the verse in the Sfat Emet. The Gerrer Rebbe explained that this verse is really talking about Ya'akov's situation in our story back in Genesis. We want to be saved from our own lips which on occasion can let slip a lie or gossip. BTW, studies show that the average person lies seven times a day (This was not one of them.).
Here's how it works: He had to lie to his father in the situation with the blessings going to Esav, because his mother had told him so. We saw in his conversation with Rivka how uncomfortable he was with this strategy, but he acceded to her superior wisdom on family affairs. He understood the power of speech because God had created the world with ten statements. However, this is an olam d'shikra, a world of sheker. So, occasionally even the Zadik must lie for the sake of tikun, repairing the fabric of reality. But here's the rub, the Zadik doesn't want to become connected to the realm of sheker. One needs Divine support to escape from that enveloping trap. In conclusion, this is how the Rebbe translates the verse: God, only You can save me from my own necessary lie, because the act of lying could ensnare me in the world of deceit. So often one lie leads to many more, and unwittingly one becomes comfortable with the behavior.
Get over it, Ya'akov lied because it was necessary. The possibility of Esav possessing the blessings of wealth and power which Yitzchak was preparing to bestow, would eternally hamper the development of the Jewish people. Yitzchak didn't comprehend what Rivka clearly saw: Esav was corrupt. The irony is that Ya'akov's one lie undid many years of Esav's deceitful behavior. The man of truth won the day through a lie.
A person doesn't become a liar through one act. It's happens subtly over years of accepting that lies are normative, because 'everybody does it' or 'there's no other way to succeed'. We must look at every 'white lie' as an anomaly to who I am and how I behave. That's what kept Ya'akov safe. But even that level of care may not be enough. Everyday we quote the verse, 'Bestow truth on Ya'akov; kindness on Avraham (Micha 7:2),' because even they require God's help to maintain their truth and kindness. The Sfat Emet is teaching us that even necessary evil can impair us, if we're not vigilant.