To lie or not to lie? Thoughts on Parashat Vayetze.
And Laban said to him, “You are truly my bone and flesh.” When he had stayed with him a month’s time. (Bereshit 29:14)
Jacob, at the urging of his mother and father, escapes from his brother, Esau, who, overwhelmed with anger at the lie and theft of the birthright decides to murder Jacob. In fact, the words of the verse quoted above have a deeper and a bit ironic meaning. It just so happens that both Laban and Jacob were liars. Of course, it is not only them who tell untruth, it is also done by Rachel, Sarah, Abraham… But in the context of the story from our Torah portion it can be concluded that Jacob’s karma returned to Jacob.
As you know, I have served your father with all my might; but your father has cheated me, changing my wages time and again. God, however, would not let him do me harm. (Bereshit 31:6-7)
This is how Jacob summarizes his long-term relationship with his father-in-law after following the voice of the Eternal that makes him decide to leave Laban, with all his family and belongings, and return to the land of his ancestors. Karma, therefore, returned to him, despite the fact that the intrigue of the “taking over of the birthright” was not his own idea, but of his mother, Rebecca. It returned to him in spite of the internal transformation that had taken place on his way to the country of Laban. The fact that both stories follow each other is not a coincidence (nothing in the Hebrew Bible is a coincidence and everything creates a logical, thoughtful whole, no matter what theory of its creation we accept). In fact, the message of these two stories can be read as: karma returns. And also, when we take a closer look at our story, Jacob, especially compared to the other people appearing in it, seems to be someone righteous.
But what does our tradition teach about speaking untruths, in more specific way? The Torah says: “Distance yourself from words of falsehood.” (Shemot 23:7) This is the only sin regarding from which the Torah warns us to “distance” ourselves. In general, Jewish tradition emphasizes the importance of telling the truth, but not always. Even the ninth commandment “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor” (Shemot 20:16) makes the prohibition of speaking untruths relative. What is the idea behind it? Telling untruth is strictly forbidden only when it is aimed at harming another human being. In other cases, this prohibition is not categorical and there are cases where it is allowed to say untruth.
Our rabbinical tradition (for example Talmud, Bava Metziah 13a) allows untruth to be spoken (understood basically as a “modification of the truth”) in the following cases:
- Changing the truth in order to practice humility. For example, one may claim ignorance of a certain Talmudic tractate even if one does actually know it.
- Changing the truth in order to maintain modesty. One does not have to tell the truth when being asked, for example, about personal or intimate matters.
- Changing the truth in order to protect someone else from harm or inconvenience. For example, if a host was very gracious, and one is asked about this, one should not tell all about his magnanimity as this may cause too many guests to flock to him. On a similar vein, if a person has an incurable illness, and informing him of this will be detrimental to his health, it may be proper to withhold this information from him.
- A ‘white lie’ said in order to protect someone from embarrassment. An example of this is that one may say that a bride is beautiful even if she isn’t particularly beautiful.
- There are some circumstances under which one is allowed to be deceptive in order to recoup losses that are owed to him. Our patriarch Jacob employed this method to protect his lawfully earned gains from being defrauded him by Laban. We are therefore allowed to say untruth to overt liars who act to our detriment. And we are definitely allowed to lie in order to save someone’s health or life.
Despite all these allowances, one should always attempt not to say an outright lie, but rather to tell half-truths if telling the whole truth was something dubious or harmful. We should also try to avoid lying to children, so as not to train them to lie. Also, even in these circumstances, one should try not to lie on a constant basis.
Jacob’s lie, committed in order to take over the birthright does not fall into any category of “allowed untruths”, since its direct result was the harm of another man – his brother Esau. However, are we, as Jews, descendants and spiritual heirs of Jacob-liar? We are not, because we are all bnei-Israel and not bnei-Yaakov. We are not children of Jacob, but of Jacob-Israel, the one who underwent spiritual transformation and ceased to be Jacob-liar.
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