Student Teaching in the New Millenium

White Lies

In Genesis on January 8, 2012 at 2:07 am

I’m at a wedding
And the groom asks me
Isn’t my bride beautiful?

How do I respond?
Should I tell the truth?
Am I stupid or something?

Genesis 47.28-50.26
1 Kings 2.1-2.12

Parsha Vayechi

And when Joseph’s brethren saw that their father was dead, they said: ‘It may be that Joseph will hate us, and will fully requite us all the evil which we did unto him.’

And they sent a message unto Joseph, saying: ‘Thy father did command before he died, saying:

So shall ye say unto Joseph: Forgive, I pray thee now, the transgression of thy brethren, and their sin, for that they did unto thee evil. And now, we pray thee, forgive the transgression of the servants of the God of thy father.’ And Joseph wept when they spoke unto him.

Genesis 50.15-17

How do you respond to this?  If you’re anything like me, you might say “Jacob didn’t say that!  His brothers are liars!”  But then you might say “wait a minute.  The Torah doesn’t say Jacob said this…but the Torah doesn’t say Jacob didn’t say it either.”  So, what should we make of this?

When I was growing up my parents would put on the radio show broadcast by the local Orthodox rabbi.  He had this to say one day.

What do you do when you know a couple who is having…trouble?  You go up to the wife and say “You know, your husband is a truly hard worker.  It’s clear he does this for you.”  You go up to the husband and say “You know, your wife is a beautiful woman.  She keeps a wonderful household, and is raising wonderful children with you.”  Why?  To promote peace.

Here’s a passage from Talmud.

Our Rabbis taught: How does one dance before the bride? Beth Shammai say: The Bride as she is.  And Beth Hillel say: ‘Beautiful and graceful bride!’  Beth Shammai said to Beth Hillel:  If she is lame or blind, does on say to her ‘Beautiful and graceful bride’?  Whereas the Torah said, ‘Keep thee far from a false matter.’  Said Beth Hillel to Beth Shammai:  According to your words, if one has made a bad purchase in the market, should one praise it in his eyes or depreciate it?  Surely, one should praise it in his eyes.

Kethuboth 16b-17a

What is the Torah ideal here?  Torah is Truth, so it follows that we should pursue truth in all things.  Keep thee far from a false matter.  Truth is Peace, so it follows that we should pursue peace in all things.  Surely, one should praise it in his eyes.  What happens when Truth and Peace seem to be at odds?  Which is the greater imperative?  Truth or Peace?

Our passage from Talmud is often abbreviated to read “because in the eyes of the groom she is beautiful.”  Do you see this in the passage above?

Peace is the ultimate Torah ideal, as it is said it’s ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace.  Also, mine house can be a house of prayer for all peoples.  How do we get to this point if all we do is insult each other just because its is “true”?

Joshua ben Perahyah says:  Provide thyself with a teacher, get thee a comrade, and judge everyone with the scale weighted in his favor.

Aboth 1.6

So, is the fact that the Torah doesn’t say “Jacob said such and such” relevant or irrelevant?

The true questions are, it seems to me:  When do lies cease to be white?  When does judging favorably become being taken advantage of?  How do we tell the difference?

Further reading:

The White Lie by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
The Torah In Haiku: Va-Y’chi


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