Is dishonesty ever justified? (toldot)
Its an interesting question isn’t it, and I am sure that everyone here has a take on it.
If we look at next weeks sedra toldot we see the well known story of the birthright where Jacob is encouraged by his mother to dress up like his brother Esau and receives his father’s blessing – there are a number of interpretations of the story but on a basic level Isaac is tricked/misled into thinking that he is blessing Esau. Rabbi Sacks said that Jacob felt qualms but did what his mother said, knowing she would not have proposed deceit without a strong moral reason to do so.
So is the torah - which is our book to show us how to live our lives saying that its justified to be dishonest? Does the end result really justify the means?
On a simple level it appears that this example does shows that it is justified – here we have an example where mum thinks that one son will do a better job of continuing the family and therefore it appears its ok to pretend to be someone else. If however one looks a little deeper Jacob has to leave his home after this, is deceived about his most loved son Joseph and does not talk to his brother until he makes up him many years later. Could this be considered punishment for being as some would argue unpleasant and embarrassing to his father, putting a stumbling block before the blind? I will come back to this later.
When prayers are said they include words which describe G-ds qualities – which we as the Jewish people are encouraged to work towards
Eg hasham hashem cel rachoom
Compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abundant in kindness and truth. The idea being that these are the qualities what one should aspire to work towards – included here is Truth.
The torah says in shemot 23:7 ‘distance yourself from falsehood’, and the Talmud Sanhedrin 97a shows that being careful to speak only truthfully is a spiritual prorpitous activity that brings one closer to G-d.
So whats the right thing to do when you are in a sticky situation – as someone said to me if a bride asked you on her wedding day if she is beautiful and you thought she looked ugly what would you say? If you say you look awful (in your mind the truth) she will be unhappy for one of the most important and what is supposed to be happy days of her life, you may well consider saying something else – like that’s a very beautiful dress (which is true because the dress is lovely – just not right for her). One commentator said that Jacob stuck as close to the truth as he could, and he knew the intention was good.
Some argue that in certain circumstances it is permissible to override the truth and be dishonest- and I found an article on Chabad which lists examples of permitted white lie situations. Including changing the truth in order to protect someone else from harm or inconvenience – so the article argued ‘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’. The article also argued that if one does something for oneself but another understands that it was done to honour them one does not have to correct this misunderstanding. It picks this up from a story in the Talmud chulin 94b.
Interestingly the article also says there are exceptions ie when it is not acceptable to be dishonest…..one should avoid lying around children so they are not trained to lie (in sukkah 46b) and one should try not to lie on a consistent basis. As it becomes a habit. After all behaviour is learnt.
But where do you stop with something like this, what are the boundaries – as its always possible to justify any action. As we all know there are always 2 sides to a story – and also there is the old chestnut of what is truth and how do you define it? In any disagreement both sides believe that what they are saying is true.
So why have the story of Jacob and Esau at all? The torah does not attempt to cover up the failings of its heroes – instead we have this story – one could argue showing that we are all human and could make mistakes, and survive them. I read recently (from Rabbi Nechamia Coopersmith) that it can be argued that the torah is an instruction manual for living, written by G-d himself, showing that we are all constantly learning.
If you look at other parts of life how do people learn – yes they do sit in class however there is a whole area to life where one learns by what is called ‘experience’ – one tries something, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t – if it doesn’t one changes what one is doing. As king Solomon says ‘ A righteous man falls down seven times and gets up’ (proverbs 24.16). We learn from our mistakes – although I am not sure I can make a mistake 7 times – I think I might just give up first. However it’s a good thing that Thomas Edison did not give up as I really like electric light – it took 1000 goes – he said ‘I didn’t fail 1000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps’. Its all in the mind.
Going back to next weeks sedra it is interesting that a very old story can still apply to life today – its really timeless – showing that sometimes dishonesty can be justified sometimes – but there are always consequences to any action taken. In fact it probably takes more self restraint to not be dishonest than to tell a small lie. It can be argued that Incidents like this can show that G-d does not demand perfection but only sincere endeavour. Per Rabbi Sacks ‘that is how moral life is. We learn by mistakes. We live life forward, but we understand it only looking back. Only then do we see the wrong turns we inadvertently made. The discovery is sometimes our greatest moment of moral truth’
So in conclusion I will leave you with this thought…….in the heat of the moment its much easier to bend the truth and be slightly dishonest, however there are always consequences to an action. Self control is something to be practiced - Will you think twice next time?