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Parshas Vayeira (5774)

Liar Liar - When it's OK to Bend the Truth

If you ever find yourself needing to give a recommendation for a friend or colleague and you know that he is not really deserving of the job – and you don’t want to lie outright but you don’t want to say the whole truth either – don’t worry! Just break out The Lexicon of Intentionally Ambiguous Recommendations (L.I.A.R.) This hilarious book, written by Robert J. Thornton, and published by Sourcebooks Inc., will provide you with just the right words to say or write so that nobody will know exactly what you mean!

~ For example, to describe someone with a criminal record, you can say: “He is a man of many convictions” or "She has a long and notable record"

~ To describe a person who is totally inept, you can write: "I most enthusiastically recommend this candidate with no qualifications whatsoever" or "All in all, I cannot say enough good things about this candidate or recommend him too highly."

~ If the person is lazy, you can try this line: "In my opinion, you will be very fortunate to get this person to work for you."

~ For someone who can’t hold down a job, say: “I am sure that whatever task she undertakes -- no matter how small -- she will be fired with enthusiasm.”

~ If your colleague has zero talent and her work is shoddy, write: “I found myself frequently raving about her work.”

~ To describe an ex-employee who had problems getting along with fellow workers, you can try: "I am pleased to say that this candidate is a former colleague of mine."

~ If the candidate doesn’t score that high in the brains category, try this one: “He is only 30, but he has the mental faculties of a man three times his age.”

Now this might seem cute and humorous, but the truth is that there are times when the Torah allows and even commands us to bend the truth if it serves a constructive purpose.

The Talmud in Yevamos 65b states:

Rabbi Ila’i said in the name of Rabbi Elazar ben Rabbi Shimon: One is permitted to alter the truth for the sake of peace, for it says, [The brothers instructed messengers to tell Joseph,] “Your father gave orders before his death, saying, ‘Thus shall you say to Joseph: O please, kindly forgive the spiteful deed of your brothers and their sin for they have done you evil…” (Genesis 50:16-17). [Jacob never gave such orders. The brothers invented the statement for the sake of preserving the peace between themselves and Joseph.] Rabbi Nosson said: It is a mitzvah [to alter the truth for the sake of peace], for it says, [When G-d told Samuel to anoint David as king,] “Samuel asked: ‘How can I go? If Saul finds out he will kill me” (1 Samuel 16:2), [whereupon G-d told him to claim that he had come to bring an offering to G-d]. At the yeshiva of Rabbi Yishmael they taught: Peace is a great thing, for even the Holy One, Blessed is He, modified [Sarah’s statement]; for initially it says: [Doubting that she could have children at such an advanced age, Sarah said,] “My husband is old!” (see Genesis 18:12-13), while afterward, [when G-d told Abraham about Sarah’s doubt, He changed her statement of, “My husband is old”, which Abraham might resent, to,] “I am old”, [in the interest of preserving Shalom Bayis, domestic peace and harmony.]

We learn from this Talmudic passage that telling the whole truth is not always the best way to go. Why, even G-d Himself altered our matriarch Sarah’s words so as to preserve the peace between her and Abraham.

It is difficult to understand, however, how G-d, Whose essence is emes, truth, can lie and bend the truth.

In Strive for Truth, Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler explains that ‘truth’ should not be defined based on what is factually true, but rather based on that which is in conformity with the will of G-d, i.e., the Torah. Thus, even if a certain statement may appear false factually, if making it furthers an important Torah value such as Shalom Bayis and domestic harmony, then, in fact, one has adhered to the truth.

Although the Torah allows us to tell white lies when necessary, there are limitations.

For example, according to many Halachic authorities, one should never allow children to lie, even if it serves a higher goal. This is because if young children are allowed to bend the truth for the sake of Shalom Bayis or some other worthy reason, they may not be mature enough to differentiate between permissible and forbidden lying and might come to lie all the time.

This helps to explain a rather humorous story that is recorded in the Talmud in Yevamos 63a:

Rav’s wife would torment him constantly. If he told her, “Prepare me lentils,” she would prepare him beans. If he asked her for beans, she prepared him lentils. When his son Chiya matured, he used to switch his father’s instructions [so his mother mistakenly would prepare exactly what Rav wanted]. “Your mother has improved,” Rav remarked to his son. Replied the son, “I switched your orders.” So Rav told him, “Now I understand what people say, ‘You can learn something from your son.’” [Rav have never thought of this ploy.] “But you should not continue to do this, because it says, “They trained their tongue to speak falsehood, striving to be iniquitous” (Jeremiah 9:4).

We can ask the question: Why did Rav stop his son if the Talmud says that one is permitted to lie in order to maintain peace? The answer is that by allowing his son to lie at such a young age, Rav was running the risk of turning his son into a habitual liar, which is certainly forbidden.

Another caveat that must be mentioned is that even where one is allowed to lie, effort should be made to minimize the lie as much as possible.

This can be learned from the story recorded later on in the Book of Genesis where our forefather Jacob is forced by his mother Rebecca to trick his father Isaac into giving him the blessings instead of Esau (see Genesis Chapter 27). Upon Rebecca’s instructions, Jacob dresses in his brother’s hairy garments and stands in front of his blind father, pretending to be Esau. Isaac asks him, “Who are you?” to which Jacob responds, “It is I, Esau your firstborn”.

The Bible commentators explain that even though Jacob was commanded by his mother to lie to his father (Rebecca had received a Divine prophecy telling her that Jacob was the rightful recipient of Isaac’s blessings), he tried to minimize his lie as much as possible. This is why he was intentionally ambiguous when answering his father, “It is I, Esau your firstborn”, which can also be construed to mean, “It is I” who is standing in front of you; “Esau, (however), is your firstborn”.

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