In this week’s portion there are over fifty injunctions listed that, for the most part, govern the gamut of civil law and order. Much has been written in explaining the significance of the specific sequence the Torah chose to cite them in. Yet there is one verse that not only challenges us in deciphering the juxtaposition of seemingly two unrelated laws within one verse, but seem to be actually contradictory in their messages.
מדבר שקר תרחק (שמות כג ז), Distance yourself from anything false. This most famous pronouncement demands of us to stay far away from any taint of falsehood. It is the only directive among the many laws of the Torah that explicitly summons us to ‘distance’ ourselves from a pernicious flaw.
The verse then goes on to state: ונקי וצדיק אל תהרג כי לא אצדיק רשע, do not exonerate the innocent or the righteous, for I shall not exonerate the wicked. Rashi, quoting from the Talmud and the Mechilta, explains that this verse refers to people who were charged with committing a crime deserving of the death penalty. The ‘innocent’ in the verse is one who was found guilty, but after the verdict was already handed down someone came forward claiming to have evidence in his favor. Although the court has determined his guilt and revealed that he is not ‘righteous’, we must reopen the case to see if indeed he may be ‘innocent’. The ‘righteous’ person in the verse is someone who was acquitted but new evidence of guilt was discovered. Nevertheless we do not undo the verdict and he thus remains ‘righteous’; exempt from the death penalty. The verse concludes with the assurance that despite the possibility he may indeed be culpable, G-d will intervene and never permit the guilty to go scot-free, and will exact his due punishment as only He can.
Although the first law seems to qualify as one motivated by the pursuit of truth and thus appropriately placed next to the objective to avoid falsehood, but how are we to fathom the second law? Imagine if this was a case of an alleged murderer and the court exonerates him and the family of the victim discovers new and vital evidence indicating his guilt. Where is the justice? Where is our unswerving commitment to pursue the absolute truth? How can we simply write it off and be expected to be pacified that G-d will make things right?
We live in a world that is termed עלמא דשיקרא, a world of fiction. Think about it, how often to we really have a full perception of the truth. Even when witnesses testify to the veracity of an event does that mean we ‘know’ with certainty it happened? So often our interactions with people and the attitudes we develop towards them is tainted by self-interest, skepticism, circumstantial observations, or intentional deception in their portraying of themselves differently than they truly are. Because we have limited vision both physically and emotionally, tainted by bias and instinctive doubt, we are condemned, due to our limitations, to misreading actions and intentions and constantly squabbling and second guessing others as well as ourselves.
This is what the famous Midrash regarding the initial hesitation in creating the world due to the attribute of אמת, truth, claiming that man is completely untruthful, and שלום, the attribute of peace, alleging they are full of contention, alludes to. In a world of myopic vision it is inevitable that in our misperceptions conflict will erupt. Only in a world of absolute truth can one perceive one another accurately and honestly, not deluding ourselves, and achieve true peace.
The Talmud observes that the letters in the word שקר, falsity, are all adjacent to one another in order of the alef bais, whereas אמת, truth, is equally dispersed within the alef bais, with the alef in the beginning, the mem smack in the middle, and the tav, at the end. The Talmud says the reason for this is because falsity is שכיח, prevalent and thus more evident, while truth is scarcer, thus spread apart.
Perhaps the deeper message here is that falsity can only thrive within the limited boundaries of human perception. Truth is only attainable if one has a more expansive and fuller view of the entire landscape of human complexity and experience, as only G-d possesses. That is why אמת, truth, is the חותמו, the seal or unique signature of G-d alone.
The only way to maneuver through a delusional world is with אמונה, faith and total submission to a higher will that is solely capable of guiding us to the absolute truth.
The Radak teaches that indeed the word for faith, אמונה, is rooted in the word אמת, truth. It stands for something that exists and remains. We call that reality. It is only by submitting totally to G-d and His will even as it is expressed here on this ‘fictitious’ world, that can bring us access to true reality. (ספר השרשים - אמן)
May I boldly suggest, that the sentiment מדבר שקר תרחק, Distance yourself from anything false, is not just a directive to stay far away from falsity, but perhaps more literally a call to refrain from attempting to definitively label anything as absolutely false. מדבר שקר, from ‘matters’ of falsity, תרחק, distance and avoid sweeping declarations of absolute falsehood. We cannot perceive with accuracy in the finite and concealed world we live in. The only yardstick for truth we can possibly have is by asking ourselves how does it fit in with His directives and will.
The second part of our original verse refines our understanding of the first segment that summons to avoid falsity at all costs. Whereas in our limited scope the pursuit of new evidence would warrant more investigation, in the ultra-macro view of G-d we must except our inability to see the bigger picture and rely on the utter submission to that super reality.
We must live with a strong conviction of truth that is based solely on the Torah’s periscopic view of reality amidst a world of limited vision.
The illustrious grandson of the saintly Tzemach Tzedek, Rav Shlomo Zalman Schneerson who served as the Rebbe of Kopust, offers a remarkable interpretation of the famed debate between Bais Hillel and Bais Shammai regarding praising a Kallah, a bride, with the description as a כלה נאה וחסודה, pretty and gracious bride, even when she lacks obvious beauty or grace.
Bais Shammai says one must follow the dictum to distance oneself from falsehood and simply praise the brides identified qualities she may possess, but never exaggerate or lie. Bais Hillel claims that just as one who made a poor purchase in the market, nevertheless it is incumbent on us to praise it ‘in his eyes’, similarly may we extol the bride’s beauty and grace in the eyes of her groom.
The Rebbe of Kopust sees couched in this discussion a deeper spiritual dispute between Bais Hillel and Bais Shamai. One of the examples Bais Shammai presents to Bais Hillel in his argument that one may not give false praise is that of a חיגרת, a woman with a lame foot that compels her to limp as she walks. Is it possible, he queries, that this woman can be described as graceful?
Eliyahu HaNavi, Elijah the Prophet, confronts the people who were torn between their allegiance to G-d and their being seduced by the prophets of Baal to offer a sacrifice to their idol, challenging them by saying, “Until when are you hobbling between two ideas? If the Lord is G-d, go after Him, and if the Baal, go after him.”
The imagery of one tottering on imbalanced legs, represents the test of those who are striving for the truth but are confused by their deficient vision in discerning it clearly. The Talmud points out that in contrast to the letters in the word for truth, אמת, which are firmly standing on two solid legs, the letters in the word for falsehood, שקר, each stand precariously on one leg, representing those who live by their mistruths, who stagger through life.
The word for a bride, כלה, is etymologically related to the term כלתה נפשי, my soul pines, intimating here the longing one has to peer through the clouds of doubt and discover the ultimate truth.
Bais Shammai maintains one cannot be praiseworthy while they are stumbling in their quest to find truth. Bais Hillel advocates that those who strive despite their confusion can transform the letters of שקר, falsehood, into the word קשר, connection to the Almighty even as they still limp.
May I humbly add to this inspiring interpretation that the second example Bais Shammai offers is of a woman who is blind. Here too, the allusion is to the struggle to perceive with acuity truth in a world darkened by selfishness, doubt and falsity.(מגן אבות תולדות)
We welcome the month of אדר this Shabbos heralding the upcoming holiday of Purim. It has been suggested that the letters אדר are represented in the sentiment expressed in Tehillim, ראש דברך אמת (קיט קס), Your very first utterance is truth. Embedded within the first three words of Torah, בראשית ברא אלקים, In the beginning of G-d’s creating..., the letters אמת appear at the end of each word.
Wasn’t that their challenge in Shushan? They questioned Mordechai’s guidance opting to determine their fate by their own befuddled conceptions. They eventually discovered that only through adherence to a higher vision can we hobble through life successfully.
May we define our reality solely through strict adherence to the guidance of Torah and with an absolute faith in G-d, never succumbing to the easy temptation to determine reality by our tainted and very limited vision.
צבי יהודה טייכמאן