The National Archives, housed in an austere building in downtown Washington, D.C., contain original copies of the founding documents of the United States of America: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights. I went there to listen to scratchy tape recordings made secretly in Richard Nixon’s Oval Office, recordings of fraud and deceit that ultimately led to Nixon’s resignation from the presidency in the dénouement of the Watergate scandal. The scale and impact of Richard Nixon’s lies set him apart from probably every other president and surely most people generally. But what my research and the research of many others has shown is that lies occur regularly in every office. They occur regularly in every living room, in every bedroom, they occur regularly in conversations between strangers and conversations between friends.
In a sense, the very fact that the National Archives in Washington DC house both the Nixon tapes and our most esteemed texts is paradigmatic. For in our society, the juxtaposition of venerated truth and notorious deceit is not just a matter of storage. It is a contradiction that plays out in our lives every day. While we talk a great deal about respecting the truth, while most of us regard the truth with genuine respect, the fact is lies are common in American life, and in Western society in general. I went to the National Archives because I thought lies were hard to find. In fact, lying was then and is now nearly ubiquitous. If I wanted to listen to people lying, I could have listened in on practically any conversation between any two people. (Robert S. Feldman, Ph.D., From the Introduction to “The Liar in Your Life,” Virgin Books, 2009)
Professor Robert Feldman, a Fellow of both the American Psychological Association and Association for Psychological Science, is Professor of Psychology at the University of Massachusetts who researched the nature and pervasiveness of lying and deception for over twenty-five years. That lying and deceit occur at all is cause for pause. Yet, based on current research, the fact that dishonesty is so ubiquitous is no longer a question of if they lied to you, but how often do they lie? Such dishonesty rocks the very fabric of society and interpersonal relationships. Consequently, it is imperative to understand the Torah’s perspective on integrity, and whether or not there are ever circumstances that might allow swerving from the truth.
The question itself is raised in parshas Toldos, when Yaakov Avinu himself, the paradigm of truth, is directed by Rivkah Imeinu, based on an earlier nevuah from Shem, to deceive Yitzchak and receive the blessings intended for Eisav. Hence, the pressing need for a framework for understanding.
The Torah itself considers integrity one of the foundations of our soul. (Rebeinu Yona, Shaarei Teshuvah 3:184) There is a unique prohibition against falsehood as explained by the Sefer HaChinuch (Mitzvah # 74): “There is not only the mitzvah, “Do not tell a lie” (Vayikra 19:11) but also “Distance yourself from falsehood” (Shemos 23:7) to indicate an abhorrence of falsehood and a love for truth, which strives to emulate the attributes of God. The root of this mitzvah is well known: falsehood is abominable and corrupt in the eyes of all. There is nothing more abhorrent than it… And blessing is only found and will only take effect upon those who emulate Him in their actions – to be truthful just as He is a God of truth…”
Furthermore, the Mishnah in Pirkei Avos teaches that honesty is one of the three attributes that enables the continuity of existence itself: “Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said, ‘The world is sustained by three things: justice, truth, and peace.’”
With this is mind, it is difficult to understand the words of Yaakov Avinu in Parshas Toldos when he approaches his blind father Yitzchak, disguised as Eisav, to receive the berachos intended for Eisav:
He [Yaakov] came to his father [Yitzchak], and said, “Father.”
He [Yitzchak] said, “I am here. Who are you, my son?”
And Yaakov said to his father, “It is I, Eisav, your first born…”
Whereas there is a discussion among the commentators whether or not Yitzchak was aware of Yaakov’s true identity when he gave him the berachos (see Rabbi Yerachmiel Refael Shaul Miller’s Imrei Shaul), it appears on the surface as if there was deception on Yaakov Avinu’s part. This is perplexing since, as mentioned above, the Torah describes Yaakov as the paradigm of truth – “Give truth to Yaakov.” (Michah 7:20) Moreover, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 97a) illustrates, through the parable of the land of Kushta, how modifying the truth in even a seemingly justified circumstance might have negative repercussions (See Maharal, Chidushei Aggados, IBID). If so, how can Yaakov Avinu not tell the truth?
Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky writes (Emes L’Ya’akov, Bereishit 27:12) that if someone is involved in daily interactions with a dangerous fraud – someone of Eisav’s type – sometimes there may be no alternative other than using deceptive and evasive means. Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler (Michtav M’Eliyahu, Vol. I, p. 94) explains:
“What is truth and what is falsehood? When we went to school we were taught that truth is to tell facts as they occurred and falsehood is to deviate from this. This is true in simple cases, but in life many occasions arise when this simple definition no longer applies.
“Sometimes it may be wrong to “tell the truth” about another person, for example if it would reveal something negative about him, unless there was an overriding purpose and necessity. And sometimes it may be necessary to change details, when the plain truth would bring not benefit, but injury. In such cases what appears to be true is false, since it produces evil effects; and what appears to be false may help to achieve the truth.
“We had better define truth as that which is conducive to good and which conforms with the Will of the Creator, and falsehood as that which furthers the scheme of the Prince of Falsehood, the power of evil in the world.”
We can therefore understand why Yaakov Avinu would be forced to modify his words when dealing with an “Eisav.” In ordinary circumstances, however, we must be careful to maintain the utmost integrity, the very foundation of our soul, and thereby earn the implicit trust and confidence of our family, friends, colleagues and even the world.
Click here to download the Free Morasha Shiur on “Can You Ever Tell a Lie?”