Why Do We Lie?  A Sermon for Rosh HaShanah

A rabbi once told her congregation, “Next week I plan to preach about the sin of lying. To help you understand my sermon, I want you all to read Leviticus, Chapter 28. “

The following week, as she prepared to deliver her sermon, the rabbi asked for a show of hands. She wanted to know how many had read Leviticus 28.  Every hand went up. The rabbi smiled and said, Leviticus has only twenty-seven chapters. I will now proceed with my sermon on the sin of lying.”

A famous Yiddish proverb says, “Truth never dies, but it lives a wretched life.” 

Here is how I wanted to begin this sermon:

Dear Hillary and Donald…

Of course, modern tax laws prohibit me from endorsing either candidate from this pulpit, and I’m not going to.  But I am very worried.  And I know some of you are, too.

The soul of this country is in our hands.  Our American values are on the table: Equality, Democracy.  Optimism.  Progress.  Competition.  And also: Philanthropy.  Helping the oppressed.  Championing the weakest and smallest.  Defending against tyranny.

Of course, we have other cherished, American values, some of which might seem to counter the above: Capitalism.  Individualism.  Pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps.

Not since Abraham Lincoln, perhaps, have we had any presidential candidate who was renowned for his honesty.  The field of politics, generally, is a minefield of lies.  Children running for student council learn this lesson early, and make impossible promises.  Longer recess, anyone?

Yet, at moments like these – not that I can recall any moment quite like this one in my lifetime! – my impulse is to turn to the wisdom of my ancestors for guidance.  

So, inspired by our Mussar exploration, here is the big question I wish to address today:

Why do we lie?

We know that the Torah commands us to “keep far from a false matter” (Ex. 23:7).   And the Mishneh, the foremost commentary on the Torah, forbids a merchant from “sifting crushed beans” — that is, deceiving customers by hiding bad merchandise under good merchandise.

Truth-telling is praiseworthy.  In the Mekhilta we learn:  If one is honest in his business dealings and people esteem him, it is accounted to him as though he had fulfilled the whole Torah.  (Mekhilta, Vayisa, Ch. 1).

And then there is the story of the Golem.  According to legend, this man of clay was fashioned by Rabbi Yehudah Loew in 16th-century Prague.  (If you visit that city, as I did several years ago, you will find a market full of souvenirs inspired by this story).  Rabbi Loew created the golem for the purpose of defending the Jewish community of his day from anti-Semitic violence.  To bring it to life, he chanted powerful prayers over the molded form – and then inscribed a word on its forehead.  Can you guess what that word was?  It was emet, truth.  

We learn from this that Truth is a life-giving principle.  Still, Jewish tradition recognizes that truth is not a simplistic notion.  Any attorney in the room would remind us that, in any given trial, more than one version of truth may be presented.  Each of us has our own perspective and memory.  Truth is often multi-faceted, rather than absolute.

That Hebrew word truth, EMET, written on the Golem’s famous forehead,  is spelled with the first letter of the alphabet, ALEF, the middle letter of the alphabet, MEM, and the last letter of the alphabet, TAF.  In other words, in order to reach truth, you need to understand the entire context of something – the beginning of it, the middle of it, and the end of it. Yet truth is delicate, and also versatile – so much so, that it can be stretched to look like a lie, just as a lie can be manipulated to appear as truth.  Nuanced and, squirrely, truth can be hard to know it all.  But ultimately, Truth is not about certainty.  It is about humility – the humility of knowing that there is more to life than being right.

When God tells Abraham and Sarah that they will become parents in their ripe old age, Sarah laughs.  “Shall I, being old, have pleasure, though my husband is also old?”  God, in reporting Sarah’s dubious laughter to Abraham, carefully omits her mention of Abraham’s age.  In other words, even God is not completely transparent , not even with Abraham.  

Among the many disputes between the great first-century sages Hillel and Shammai is their interpretation of the Jewish obligation to sing a bride’s praises.  The question arises: what if the bride happens to be awkward, or ungainly, or a mess?  What if one can find nothing praiseworthy in her?  Should one lie?

Shammai says no, one should not lie, even about a bride.  He cites Exodus’ exhortation to keep far from falsehood.

But Hillel asserts: All brides are beautiful, and all may be praised as “beautiful and gracious.”

Though truth is highly valued, for us it is not an absolute value.   For an explanation, we need look to the end of the verse from Exodus: “Distance yourself from words of falsehood; do not kill an innocent or righteous man.” In other words, our words must take into consideration the well-being of others, both in body and spirit.  We are forbidden to speak in a way that might cause harm to any person, even if that speech is true.

So we have at least one very good rationale for shying away from the truth.  People’s feelings matter.  We are not supposed to shame one another, or embarrass each other.  We are not to say anything that would cause the blood to drain away from someone’s face –  a crime our sages equate with murder.  

The example of Moses’ brother, Aaron, offers us one more defensible rationale for lying.  It is said of him that when he saw conflict arise between two people, he would approach one and claim that the other was sorry and wished to apologize.  And then he would run to the other and make the same claim of the other disputant.  For the sake of making peace, Aaron the High Priest told lies.

Sadly, most of us are not so nobly motivated when we stretch the truth.  

Ever show up to class unprepared for an exam?  Were you insecure enough to cheat, even just a little?  

Who here has a sibling and has never blamed them for something you did?  Like when you ate the last cookie, or put the empty milk carton back in the refrigerator after consuming the last drop?  

What if someone asks you if you’re busy on a certain day.  And you aren’t. But neither do you want to engage with this particular person or cause.  Or maybe you just don’t want to commit.  So you fabricate an excuse.  

Or how about this one, kids:  Sorry – My phone died.

I’m sure we all have our own examples, times when we might have told the truth without hurting anyone – and yet, we lied anyway.

What is it we are so afraid of, that compels us to lie?

Mostly, I think, we worry for our own reputation – we don’t want to be seen in a bad light. Oh, the irony of that!   Or, perhaps we fear punishment, or other consequences.  Sometimes, we lie because we fear facing someone else’s disappointment.    

If you think about it, fear really is the driver behind the vast majority of our lies.  And when we muster the courage to peer behind that mask, we learn something about ourselves.

We might lie because we lack patience.  We don’t want to take the time to explain. 

Maybe we tell whoppers so that others will honor us, because deep down inside, we believe ourselves to be otherwise unworthy.

While tradition says that lying to protect others’ feelings is justifiable, perhaps we lie too much out of an overabundance of compassion.  We are so worried about everyone’s feelings, we bend the truth too often, believing that it is always in their best interest.

Maybe we feel the need to be the biggest, baddest tiger in the room.  We take up more space than we need for lack of humility.

Or maybe it is our own feelings we are protecting – our need for privacy, born long ago as a shield against too much scrutiny in the glare of a very public life.

Why do we lie? Because we fear the consequences of telling the truth. And we forget that so often, the truth really does set us free.

In his book, Everyday Holiness, Alan Morinis tells the story of a woman who discovered that a meeting she was expected to attend conflicted with the timing of the seventieth birthday party she was giving for her husband.  Fearful of being judged, she considered making up another excuse for missing the meeting – but decided to tell the truth instead.  She was astonished by the response: her fellow board members, rather than judging her, offered her their support and felicitations.

There are other benefits to truth-telling. Morinis tells another story about a scholar who was called to audition for the post of Rosh Yeshiva by giving a sermon.  Just after stating his thesis, he was interrupted by a question.  The rabbi was silent for a moment.  “I have made a mistake,” he said.  And so he began again on a different subject.

When he arrived home, his wife asked how the sermon had gone.  “Not very well,” he said, and told her what had happened.  “In fact, I had three different answers to offer, but I felt that the question was closer to the truth than any of my answers.”  

Despite his misstep, the scholar was hired for the position – precisely, as it turned out, because of his honesty and humility.

In Hebrew they say that “falsehood has no legs.”  This is true in two ways.  Falsehood has no foundation, no true leg, on which to stand.  Also, it has no legs to run with; it is unsustainable for the long haul. Falsehood compels us to weave a web of deceit, and eventually trips us up.

This is why Jewish wisdom teaches us to be sacred skeptics – to question our truths, to become lifelong learners as opposed to absolute knowers.  We are Yisrael – God-wrestlers, meant to seek, not merely to find.  

As we contemplate our ballots in the coming month, we must wrestle with each of our choices – not just the top of the ticket.  We must ask what motivates any and every candidate to dodge the truth, regardless of the office to which they aspire.  What character traits do they hide from us, and from themselves?  What , beyond losing the vote, do they really fear?  

The answers to those questions will teach us much about their true characters.  While the choice may be in the eyes of many a matter of choosing the lesser of two evils, it is critical that we participate in making those choices, and casting our ballot.  Though this is not language we would habitually use, I pray that the choices  we, our city, our county, our state, and our nation make in November will save our nation’s soul.

Rabbi Cheryl Rosenstein
Temple Beth El Bakersfield, October 2016