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Parshat Toldot – Honesty is the best policy – or is it?

Cheshvan 5783 | November 2022

Parshat Toldot is one of several parshiot in Sefer Bereishit that leave us questioning the value of truth and immorality of falsehood. The Torah addresses this issue in three contexts. Firstly, stories in Bereishit that surprisingly indicate that honesty is not always the best policy. The second context is specific Torah commandments that seem clear cut. Twice the Torah clearly states one should speak truth and not lie:

“Do not corrupt the judgment of your needy in his disputes. Distance yourself from falsehood, do not kill a clean, innocent person, for I will not absolve the evildoer. Do not take a bribe because a bribe blinds the clear-sighted and twists the words of those in the right.” (Shmot 23:6-7) 

Shmot demands that we stay far from falsehood. In Vayikra we are commanded:

“Do not steal, do not deal deceitfully, do not lie – one person to their fellow. Do not swear falsely in my name and desecrate the name of your God, I am the Lord.” (19:11-12)

The legal sections of the Torah clearly prohibit lying and demand that we stay away from falsehood. 

The third context is found in the prophets; they too shout the importance of truth and condemn deceit. For example, Yirmiyahu laments:

“Who will give Me a lodge in the wilderness, and I will desert My people and leave them, because they are all adulterers, a band of betrayers. They train their tongues like bows, so deceit, not faithfulness, can prevail in the land; they go out from evil to evil and do not regard  me, the Lord has spoken. Each person should be wary of his fellow, and should not trust in their brother, for every brother will swindle and every fellow goes out slandering. A person cheats his fellow and they do not speak truth, they teach their tongues to speak lies and are full of corruption. You dwell in the midst of deceit. And in deceit they refuse to regard me – the Lord has spoken.” (9:1-5)

Yirmiyahu laments a society that is not guided by truth, but rather entrenched in falsehood and deceit. A similar statement is found in Tehillim: “My eyes [look to] the faithful of the land… those who speak lies will not endure before My eyes.” (121:5-6)

So what is the relationship between the clear statements condemning falsehood in Torah and Nevi’im, and the more ambiguous stories in Bereishit? 

When we turn to the halakhic literature the question of context comes up again; the approach to deceit is once again varied and complicated. We find that Chazal (along with many Torah commentaries) understand that the Torah prohibitions against falsehood are limited to the domain of legal proceedings – as the text itself indicates. In practice, the obligation to distance oneself from falsehood and the prohibition against lying are officially confined to legal proceedings – when testifying and bearing witness in criminal and civil court cases.

Yet while there is an absolute prohibition against lying within the justice system (which is expanded to include things that are not clear lies but are “close” to falsehood), it seems that the sages were not as strict with lies in other contexts. For example, Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai argue whether one is allowed to lie when dancing before a bride. Beit Shammai maintains that one should describe the “bride as she is;” Beit Hillel states that one should sing that the bride is beautiful and gracious to make the groom happy. Additionally, Chazal teach us that there were times the Holy One, blessed Be He, actually deviated from the truth or instructed others to do so “for the sake of peace.” In the same vein, they rule that one may lie for reasons of modesty, humility, or to protect others. 

Yet there are many place the sages praise truth – claiming it is a condition to receiving the Shekhina (Divine presence), calling it “the stamp of God,” and stating that one should be careful with their language lest they teach others how to lie,  as we saw in Nevi’im and Ketuvim. 

Rav Asher Weiss explains there are two aspects to the relationship between the imperative to tell the truth and the prohibition against lying. Within the beit din (courts) the obligation is absolute; outside of the beit din there are other values that come into play. On a practical level Rav Asher Weiss distinguishes two approaches to truth and falsehood – within the courts the obligation to tell the truth belongs to the strictly codified realm of halakha, outside of the justice system it is related to the nebulous realm of character traits and values.

We can learn from here that within the courts there are clear lines – an unequivocal prohibition against lying or even proximity to deceit. Outside of the courts truth is highly valued but it is not the highest value, and so in cases of conflict one can and should weigh it against other values like peace, modesty, security, etc.

This explanation offers worthwhile context to some difficult stories in the Torah, those occasions when other important values are chosen over telling the truth. Sometimes the choice is not between black and white, but shades of gray – one has to choose the best option under the circumstances. In any event, both the Torah and Chazal emphasize that even when a lie may be necessary there is a price to pay for the deception. Yaakov deceives his father in our parsha – and even if we accept that it was for a good reason – he was repeatedly deceived in return, by Lavan and then by his own sons in the Joseph saga.

Some people think that we must discuss whether the forefathers’ actions were appropriate in order to figure out if we should learn from them. Perhaps this should be two separate questions. It’s possible to say that our forefathers acted appropriately for the situation they were in, but that we should not emulate their actions since the context was different. Even if one is certain they are in the right, the fate of an entire nation is not the same as that of an individual. One who uses subterfuge to fulfill a prophecy or follow Divine guidance is not comparable to someone who is willing to sacrifice the truth for their own personal gain. 

We could apply these lessons to the Jewish people’s return to the Land of Israel in the previous century. When they were struggling to settle the land our predecessors had to use lies and deceit against the British and others. In those particular circumstances it seems that such actions were necessary to rebuild the presence of the Israelite people in the land. Nevertheless, just like our forefathers, Torah and history teach us that we pay a price for these methods. Sometimes, when we instruct our tongues to speak falsehood it is passed down to the next generation, who can no longer claim that the ends justify the means (even if that’s how we rationalize these decisions to make us feel better).

The value of truth should light our way, and we should only deviate from it under extenuating circumstances, to choose a more virtuous path. Sometimes we have to choose one value over another, but that doesn’t mean we should minimize the importance of the value that was rejected. On the contrary, we need to bear in mind the importance of that value and stay vigilant. We must always remember that God’s signature is truth. 

Rabbanit Dr. Adina Sternberg

was in the first cohort of the Matan Kitvuni Fellowship program and her book is in the publication process. She has a B.A. in Bible from Hebrew University and a M.A. and Ph.D. in Talmud from Bar Ilan University. Adina studied in Midreshet Lindenbaum, Migdal Oz, Havruta and the Advanced Talmud Institute in Matan. She currently teaches Bible and Talmud at Matan, and at Efrata and Orot colleges. Adina lives in Adam (Geva Binyamin) with her family.