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To Tell the Truth: Deciding Between Competing Torah Values

The Torah admonishes against falsehood in Shemot (23:7): "midevar sheker tirchak - distance yourself from a false word," and in Vayikra (19:11): "...v'lo teshakru, ish l'amito - a man shall not lie to his friend."

Of the three Avot, Yaakov is most closely associated with the midda of "truth." In parshat Toldot (25:27), Yaakov is described as an "ish tam" (which Rashi explains to mean an honest individual - "ela kelibo ken piv, mi she-eino charif leramot karui tam"). See also Micha 7:20 - "Tetayn emet le'Yaakov" - You have given truth to Yaakov."

Yet, in parshat Toldot, we see Yaakov acting with apparent deceit when he presents himself to Yitzchak as Esav. Perhaps most glaringly, Yitzchak asks, "Who are you, my son?," and Yaakov responds, "It is I, Esav, your firstborn." To be sure, Rashi interprets Yaakov's response as technically truthfully by splitting Yaacov's words into two separate statements, "It is I" and "Esav is your firstborn," so that there was no falsehood. But Rashi's interpretation seems forced, and other commentators disagree and explain that Yaacov deceived Yitzchak, albeit to achieve a just result (see commentary of Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch; Radak, Ibn Ezra).

How do we reconcile these apparently inconsistent sources? Clearly, it is a bad middah, if not an outright prohibition, to lie. Yet, it seems that "deceit" is sanctioned when more important, overriding values are at stake.

The question of lying for the purpose of achieving a greater good emerges from other stories in Tanach. The gemara in Shabbos (55a) states that "Hashem's signature is truth." Yet, in Shmuel I (16:1-2), we see that when the navi Shmuel expresses reservations about following Hashem's command to annoint a new king from among Yishai's sons out of fear that Shaul will kill him, Hashem tells Shmuel to make up a "cover story" that will conceal his true intentions from Shaul. How can Hashem - whose signature is truth - apparently tell Shmuel to deceive Shaul? (of course, one can say that saving someone's life is surely a value that trumps falsehood, but why didn't Hashem simply tell Shmuel not to worry, and that Hashem would protect him - there is no question that Shaul could not kill Shmuel if that was contrary to Hashem's will).

Similarly, we see in Bereshit (18:13) that when Hashem reported to Avraham that Sarah had laughed at the prospect of having a child, Hashem omitted Sarah's statement that "my husband is old!" in order to preserve the peace between Avraham and Sarah (see Baba Metzia 87a explaining "how great is the sake of peace," that Hashem omitted Sarah's statement about Avraham's age when speaking with Avraham).

Similar apparent inconsistencies can be found in the gemara.  In gemara Shabbos (115) it is related that when Rabbah saw the members of his household scraping pumpkins on Yom Kippur for consumption after Yom Kippur before Mincha, he told them that a letter had arrived from Eretz Yisrael in Rav Yochanan's name prohibiting food preparations on Yom Kippur. Rashi suggests that Rabbah fabricated the story about Rav Yochanan's ruling so that the members of his household would listen to him - without the imprimatur of Rav Yochanan, Rabbah's servants may not have followed his directive (in fact, the gemara reports earlier that Rav Yochanan held the opposite, i.e., that food preparations are permitted on Yom Kippur after zeman Mincha).

On the other hand, the gemara (Sanhedrin 97a) tells of a town called Kushta where the inhabitants never lied, and as a reward, no one ever died before their time. A certain rabbi moved there and married one of the inhabitants. They had two sons. One day the rabbi's wife was sitting and washing her hair, when a neighbor came by and knocked at the door. Thinking to himself that it would not be etiquette to tell the visitor that his wife was washing herself, the rabbi called out, ‘She is not here.’ Soon after, his two sons died. When the inhabitants of Kushta inquired about the cause of this tragedy, the rabbi related to them what had happened. At which point, they asked him to leave the town so as not cause additional deaths. 

The Maharal (Netivot Olam, Vol. 1, page 196) discusses this story at length. In a nutshell, he explains that the story of Kushta is allegorical, and intended to highlight that truth endures, while falsehood does not. Truth represents spiritual perfection, which is why the town's inhabitants never died prematurely. Yet,while modesty did not trump truth in the story of Kushta, we saw that in other cases competing values did sanction deceit (and perhaps in the "real world" modesty might sanction deception in certain circumstances).

Given the sources discussed above, what guidelines can we follow in determining when it is permissible to engage in deception, and when we are required to be truthful?

Using the story of Yaakov and Yitzchak as a springboard, Rav Avigdor Nebenzahl addresses the issue of when deceit is permitted in a sicha that readers can access here. Rav Nebenzahl's discussion covers a wide range of issues - from flattering the wicked to sincerity in tefila - but in a nutshell explains that there are values (such as "peace" or pikuach nefesh) that may trump the truth at times. But even if such circumstances, one should think privately in their mind that what he is saying is false, and he is only speaking deceitfully for the greater good. 

Of course, the question remains what criteria one should use to determine when and whether a particular value trumps truth, and deception is permitted.

In Strive for Truth, Rav Dessler explains that truth should not be defined based on what is factually true, but what is in conformity with the will of Hashem, i.e., the Torah. Whereas falsehood is that not necessarily something which is factually false, but rather that which is contrary to the values of the Torah. Thus, even if a certain statement may appear false factually, if making it furthers an important Torah value, then, in fact, one has adhered to the truth.

To the analysis, Rabbi Chaim Brown (in his Divrei Chaim blog) adds the interesting points that (i) what may seem true at a particular point in time, may ultimately turn out to be false after "all the facts in" and we see the full picture in context, and (ii) sometimes what is "true" is not a question of "fact" but of "interpretation" (e.g., while Sarah said "Avraham is old" - did she really intend to disparage Avraham? If not, there was good reason not to repeat these words, because while true, conveying them would produce a "false" outcome - i.e., falsely convey Sarah's true feelings).

But at the end of the day, I think we still come back to the same question: who should be entrusted with the right to make the momentous determination of whether deception is appropriate at a given point in time in light of the facts known to us at that time?

IMHO, Rav Nebenzahl's and Rav Dessler's approaches can best be understood as follows. In halacha, there are rules we must follow - e.g., one should tell the truth. But what happens when another rule - "save a life" or "act modestly" or "maintain peace between a husband and wife" - conflicts with that rule? That is, how do we decide between conflicting halachic rules?

This question highlights what I once heard is the distinction between "halacha" and "Torah." That is, "halacha" is a body of rules, whereas "Torah" represents the insight, wisdom and sensitivity required to determine the correct outcome when two competing halachic rules clash.

It would seem that, certainly in the difficult cases, we are not entitled to decide for ourselves whether truth or a competing rule should prevail. The simple reason is that most people are biased, and will tend to choose the outcome that suits them best, irrespective of what is truly right or wrong. Instead, it must be recognized that the decision to determine objectively what "rule" the Torah values more highly in a given situation is usually best entrusted to a rav who has spent years laboring in Torah, and thus possesses both the Torah wisdom and sensitivity to Torah values necessary to make the call, if you will.

To take this thought a step further, the broader issue here beyond the question of truth versus falsehood is the importance of developing an awareness of the frequency with which Torah values come into conflict in day-to-day life. That is, as we'll see, being a "mentsch" means cultivating the sensitivity to realize when there is a choice to be made between two competing values (rather than assuming there's only one rule at play). The point being we often make the wrong choices in life (contrary to Torah values) because we don't even realize there is a competition.

To illustrate, take for example the rule that a person should always daven in a "makom kavua" in shul. But what happens if you are late to shul, and arrive to find a new visitor in town (who got to shul on time) sitting in your seat? Do you ask him to move - even if it may interrupt his kavana and possibly cause him embarrassment? I think the answer is clear, but still some people would ask the stranger to move because they don't realize (or maybe don't care) that there is another "rule" - the prohibition against embarrassing someone in public - competing with the rule of "makom kavua" (clearly, embarassing someone is a far more serious trangression - akin to murder some commentaries say - than davening in a different seat - after all isn't it the case "liba rachmana ba'iy"???).

As another example, here's a story shared by Rav Nebezahl in the sicha cited above:

R' Yisrael M'Salant who one day was observing his mother's yahrzeit and as is customary wished to act as "shliach tzibbur" in her memory. Another Jew approached him and asked if he could lead the services instead as it was his daughter's yahrzeit. Although the halacha clearly rules in favor R' Yisrael - the yahrzeit for a parent takes precedence over one for a child (not to mention that R' Yisrael was the Gadol HaDor and it would certainly have been fitting to have him serve as "shliach tzibbur"), R' Yisrael relented and allowed the other person to serve as chazan, observing how pained the man would have been had he been denied this privilege.

Rav Nebenzahl concludes that R' Yisrael reasoned that the chesed he was doing for this individual served as a greater source for elevating his mother's soul than had he served as chazan. Rephrased, R' Yisrael understood that the halachic rule of who should serve as chazan was clearly trumped by the more important value of doing a chesed for another Jew. The correct result seems so obvious, and yet sadly, the fights that occasionally break out in shuls over who should daven (and the resulting shinat chinam) suggest that some folks don't even realize (or don't care) that there are competing values at play in those situations - that is, people think the sole halachic question at issue is "who should daven for the amud?," (and fight about that) when, in fact, as the story of R' Yisrael demonstrates, there are other values to consider.

In a similar vein, the Chofetz Chaim devotes pages in his Hilchos Lashon Hara to discussing situations in which a competing value does - or does not - permit one to speak loshon hara. Are most people even aware that there is a conflict in those situations? (Halavai, people should get into fights about whether a particular statement is loshon hara or not with the same intensity they often fight about who should get to daven for the amud!!!) 

In conclusion, the bottom line is that the Torah requires us to be attentive in life to the possibility of conflicting halachic rules, and think carefully before we act to make sure that we are making the right choice, and acting (as Rav Dessler explained) in conformity with Torah values. If we take a moment to think, the choice will often be easy (hint: it's as simple as being a mentsch). But in more challenging cases, the danger of personal bias dictates that we consult with a rav whom we trust to help us navigate the competing rules and values at stake.


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