By Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb
I once taught a class whose purpose it was to introduce midrashic literature to an audience of intelligent individuals with limited experience with primary Jewish texts. One passage that led to a particularly vigorous discussion is found in the midrash Genesis Rabba 8:5 that has a direct connection to a verse in this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Mishpatim (Exodus 21:1-24:18). Here is an abbreviated version of the Midrash in question:
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 students were unanimous 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? Whereas most standard commentaries are convinced that He yielded to His angelic advisors, some insist otherwise. Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk (aka the Kotzker Rebbe), for example, maintains that Truth remains forever elusive and exceedingly rare, a castaway to this very day. I mention the Kotzker Rebbe because he typifies the spiritual leader who demanded utter truth, not only from his disciples but from all mankind.
The ultimate basis for the primacy of truth in the Jewish tradition, however, is not in the words of Genesis, nor even in the Midrashic homilies, such as the one that we just sampled. Rather, it is to be found here, in Parashat Mishpatim, which numbers as many as 25 distinct commandments.
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, to distance ourselves from a lie.
The Kotzker Rebbe used the verse in Mishpatim as the basis of his philosophy of Jewish life. But he was far from the first to recognize the peculiar emphasis of the words “keep far”. A lesser-known commentary, Tzedah LaDerech, wondered about it too. He wrote: “I find it difficult to understand why Scripture uses the expression ‘keep far’ with reference to lying, something which it does nowhere else. It occurs to me that this is because there is no more common and frequent transgression than speaking falsely. It was because of mankind’s tendency to distort the truth that the angels opposed mankind’s very existence.”
Rashi, in his commentary upon an entirely different biblical story, asserts that a lie must have at least a dose of truth in it if it is to be convincing. Perhaps, in his time, a total lie would have been disbelieved. Alas, this is no longer so, particularly with regard to statements about the Jewish people and about the State of Israel. Against us, the “big lie” is easily peddled to a frighteningly gullible world.
The “big lie” is attributed to the infamous Joseph Goebbels, who shrewdly knew its shocking power. According to the Random House Dictionary, “The ‘big lie’ is a false statement of outrageous magnitude, employed as a propaganda measure in the belief that a lesser falsehood would not be credible.”
How does one combat falsehood and deceit? 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 Tzvi Hersh Weinreb is the executive vice president emeritus of the Orthodox Union.