Friday, November 06, 2009

the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth (II)

This post is a continuation of what we started yesterday. What really drove my thinking about the Rashi of Hashem changing the story for the sake of shalom bayis is the following gemara and the Maharl's spin on it. The gemara (San. 97) tells the story of a certain person, R’ Tovus, or according to others, R’ Tovyomi, who declared that no matter how much money he was offered he would not tell a lie. Once upon a time he discovered a town called Keshot (coincidentally, the Aramaic word for truth) in which no one died before their time. Attracted to the town, he married a wife from there and settled down and had two children. Unfortunately the end of the story is not so nice. A neighbor stopped in one day and asked for R’ Tovus/Tovyomi’s wife, who at that moment was washing her hair. Not wanting to speak with a lack of tzniyus and say his was in the shower, R’ Tovus/Tovymi instead said she was not home. Immediately thereafter his two children died, and when the town leaders discovered the cause they asked him to leave the town to remove untruthfulness from their midst.

Maharal calles this gemarakasha me’od” and discusses it at length. There seems to be a relationship between the name of the town, which means truth, and the behavior of the town’s residents, who all told the truth. But if being in the town influenced its residents to always speak the truth, “hamakom goreim”, why was Rav Tovus/Tovyomi not influenced in the same way to only speak truth? And if the town’s name and character had no influence, isn’t it odd that all the residents, without a single exception, always told the truth?

The Maharal explains that Keshot is not a physical place, but rather is a spiritual accomplishment, a madreiga, which a person can reach. In the place called Keshot no one dies because, as we discussed yesterday, truth is the only thing which is eternal – 2+2 was 4 long before we were here and will continue to be four a million years from now. If you attain the degree of spiritual perfection called Keshot, you gain eternity.

R’ Tovus/TovYomi sacrificed that madreiga of keshot for the sake of the competing value of tzniyus. Undoubtedly this was the right thing to do, but doing the right thing does not absolve one from suffering whatever costs and consequences may result. 2+2 cannot equal 5 even for a good purpose, and though he may have spoken a white lie for good reason, R’ Tovus/TovYomi suffered the consequence of falsehood.

The Maharal has much more to say about this gemara, but enough for now. Compare this gemara to the Rashi in Parshas vaYeira about Hashem changing the story for the sake of Avraham and Sarah’s shalom bayis. B’shlama with respect to Rav Tovus/TovYomi, he reached a madreiga and then fell from that madreiga, albeit for a good purpose. But how is it possible to speak of Hashem kavyachol falling in madreiga? – the words don’t even make sense. So what’s going on here?

Here are two ideas I had:

1) Yesterday I quoted the gemara that Hashem's "chosam", his seal, is truth. When is the seal placed on a letter? After it is complete and all written, ready to be posted for delivery. Sometimes it is only after all the facts are in, after we see the full picture with all the details in context, that things which looked questionable turn out to be closer to the truth than we might have thought.

Did Sarah mean to disparage her husband Avraham? I don't think so. I think a comment posted yesterday headed down this road. Sarah's words did not produce a disruption of shalom bayis. To repeat those words to Avraham and produce an effect never intended may capture her quote word for word more truthfully than if those words were omitted, but in context will produce a false outcome that is a greater distortion of the truth.

2) Before a child is born a bas kol declares, "Bas ploni l'ploni," and I assume that a bas kol declared that Sarah was meant to be the soulmate for Avraham Avinu. A person has the right to exercise his/her bechira and choose whomever he/she wants as a mate irrespective of what the bas kol declares, but that does not change the fact that his/her soul might have been meant in truth for someone else (see here for more on this).

Sarah may have inadvertently chosen the wrong words, harmful words, but that is between her and Avraham. Those words exist only k'lapei her personal bechira and can be measured only based on their effect in this world, which in this case was nothing. However, k'lapei shemaya, in the world where the words of "bas Ploni l'Ploni" reverberate for all eternity, the truth is that the neshoma of Sarah is meant to be united in perfect harmony with the neshoma of Avraham. K'lapei shemaya any disruption of that harmony is sheker, falsehood, and cannot be uttered by Hashem.


  1. nice idea. I recall that Aharon was supposed to have been very successful as a marriage counselor. He would tell each side that the other one was sorry. This is not to be viewed as cynical prevarication but a reflection of his ability to actually see the truth of what each side felt.

    So why did the father object to his son's taking matters into his own hands in communicating between his parents? I think that there the father realized the son was outright lying -- to a good end, no doubt, but still lying -- he was not recognizing that his mother truly wished to make what his father wanted and was just pulling one over on her. Mitzad chinuch, lying should not be encouraged. Midvar sheker tirchak: even when one may not want to speak truth (like the nonreturnable item is truly ugly) one should not just let oneself go with a lie. Some people enjoy spinning tales and lose sight of the supremacy of truth.

  2. This is getting a bit afield, but: "the truth is that the neshoma of Sarah is meant to be united in perfect harmony with the neshoma of Avraham" It is clear that Avraham was paired with Sarah, as was Yitchak with Rivka. But what of Yaakov. He recognized Rachel as his bashert, but perhaps it was really Leah. After all they are paired in ma'aras hamchpela. That is a tough one, though, because he really had to marry both to become father to the shvatim.

  3. Ya'akov/Yisrael had a dual identity, hence he had two wives.

    >>>the father realized the son was outright lying...he was not recognizing that his mother truly wished to make what his father wanted

    I am not sure you give the son enough credit in this case. The story is about Rav and the son in question is (R') Chiya.

    I prefer the Meiri's answer: there was no shalom bayis issue here because Rav was a great husband who would have been happy to eat whatever his wife prepared. (And I know what you are going to ask me in turn: You mean Avraham was a bad husband who would have been angry had Hashem not changed Sarah's words? Good kashe)

  4. a further kashe would be why did Rav not figure out for himself to tell his wife the opposite of what he wanted? Perhaps he considered that lying and was particularly scrupulous about speaking the truth.

  5. The Maharal answers you very question in Gur Aryeh!

    IIRC, it has something to do with Sarah intent vs. how Avraham would understand it. Therefore it was more truthful to omit V'adoni Zaken.

    Something akin to answering a shidduch question that a boy is a "good" learner instead of a "great" learner.

  6. Tal Benschar10:18 AM

    1. Although not directly on point, one thing that always bothered me about this story is why did Sarah blame Avraham? He did in fact have children in his old age -- Yishmael only 12 years before, and the Bnei Keturah after Sarah's death. So, if we are talking about nature, it is Sarah's old age, not Avraham's, which was the reason for her being childless.

    Sarah herself recognizes this -- acharei belosi haysah li ednah. So what does it add to say "Va adoni zakein," when Avraham was perfectly capable of having children?

    2. I recall a Midrash that Avraham asked Hashem to institute what we call old age -- i.e. physical infirmity and slowing down. Until then, people had the health and vigor of youth until the day they died.

    3. Perhaps we can put the two together. Sarah blamed Avraham not for his own old age, but because the deterioration in her body was due to his tefillah. IOW, she is saying, "I am past having children, because my master, Avraham, prayed that our bodies should deteriorate in old age."

    4. If you accept the above, that answers your question. Her [doubting] laughter was indeed directed at her own old age -- va'ani zakanti. SHE, not Avraham, was physically past child-bearing. Hashem's repeating of the story to Avraham was completely true -- Sarah doubted she could have children because of her own old age and physical deterioration. Hashem merely omitted Sarah's blaming Avraham for that state of events.

  7. Yosef,
    What is the dibur hamaschil you are referring to? The Gur Arye addresses a different issue (why is it considered a shinuy when Hashem just left out a detail -- He didn't change anything), but I didn't see this in it.

    See HaKsav vHaKabbalah for an approach that also does not read the pasuk as assigning any blame to Avraham.

  8. Anonymous7:21 PM

    chaim b,

    Doesn't San. 97 clearly suggest that the truth is more important than any other personal insecurities or mistaken understanding of "modesty".

    "she is in a meeting" would have been fine and if the visitor persisted he could have just said
    "the answers to your additional questions are confidential/ none of your concern and are not reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of relevant non-confidential information".

    This would be better than lying.
    Nothing worth working on can be built on a foundation of sheker.

    Why did G-d find it necessary to say anything about Sara's reaction to her husband, if the conversation was all about "shalom bayis".
    A reaction which appears to be a personal reaction and not a public display of disbelief.
    And if he did find it important, I dont understand why he only found part of the Sara's reaction important.
    All or nothing, black and white, the whole truth and not half the truth is the smartest way to live.
    A half a truth is not better than no truth at all.

    And if its a context problem , like any juiscy piece of gossip, the true parts of a conversation taken out of context do not make it any less gossipier or more truthful .I'm not sure that this would be a good source to understand the importance of preserving shalom bayis by practicing omission based truths.

    Its all about the context, thats why we all have to be so careful and never take things or anecdotes out of context.....

    I don't understand this assertion,

    "the truth is that the neshoma of Sarah is meant to be united in perfect harmony with the neshoma of Avraham."

    What evidence are you basing this assumption on.

    Do concubines, prostitutes and one night/one year stands have the same "bas ploni l'ploni" poetic neshoma law of harmony and truth.

    At the end of the day its all about the truth and nothing but the entire truth.

    jaded topaz

  9. chaim b.8:45 PM

    >>>Why did G-d find it necessary to say anything about Sara's reaction to her husband,

    See the Gur Arye referenced above.

    >>>"she is in a meeting" would have been fine

    But anything said that would mislead the questioner would be false.
    There is nothing in the story which suggests that the concern for modesty here was "mistaken" (as you put it). The story is about the clash of competing values, each of which is important. As to whether or not the clash could be resolved in favor of truth instead of tzniyus, I think the answer is in Rashi Braishis 29:21, ayen sham.

  10. Anonymous9:15 PM

    Obviously, I was not suggesting that G-d was gossiping, G-d forbid.

    I was just suggesting that the manner in which G-d described Sara's reactions to her husband, had nothing to do with shalom bayis, and or the right way to censor confidential third party communications for the "sake of shalom bayis".

    Her reaction was not positive and shalom bayis oriented,her response to G-ds "claim" was also not especially conducive to "shalom bayis" either.

    If anything it teaches us that we should never respond to claims about our actions, with responses that are not true, cuz well, the understanding and information may be limited in this world but the omnicient one in heaven knows everything.
    At least according to the Bible.

    I think the omission on G-ds part about Sara's reference to her husband was more a matter of relevancy than anything else.

    It may have had nothing to do with the reason he was having the discussion in the first place.

    There is no room for sheker, in a marriage, in any of the rooms, ever.

    jaded topaz

  11. Anonymous9:23 PM

    Ure right, misleading is a sin, i know that,meeting usually works but not in this case.... so then vague is better than lying .
    "she is not available" is not misleading,modest and not a lie either.

    she is downtown at a charity ball would be a lie and there is no need for that when "she is not available" works just fine......

    so there is no lesson of modesty trumping the truth, if anything its probably more about the value of using euphemisms on very very rare occasions when one is very religious and concerned about a sense of modesty......

    Not that i would ever promote vague ambiguous hazily worded responses, halachically.

    Truth is all about the details and the precision, no room for vague hazy ambiguous sneaky responses.

    jaded topaz

  12. Anonymous10:16 PM

    I guess one would also need to distinguish between different scenarios.

    1) A husband and a wife should always be absolutely honest and never ever be dishonest with each other.
    I cant imagine any other kind of marriage working in the long run.

    2) The obligations of a third party to be making sure two parties know the absolute truth about what each party is saying about the other is governed under a whole nother set of halachas.

    2a)Confidentiality would also be an issue of concern.

    3)And when the third party is G-d, well since none of us are G-d the whole point is kind of moot.

    Who goes around having discussions with husbands about what their wife thought to herself or a wifes personal reactions for starters.

    jaded topaz

  13. This is a complete aside, but it seems clear from the gemara in sotah that "Bas ploni l'ploni" would not apply to Avraham and Sarah, since Avraham would certainly fall under "ayn mozgin lo l'adam isha ela l'fi ma'asav" - to which Rashi adds tznua l'tzaddik, etc. And the gemara clearly holds that a tzaddik getting an isha l'fi ma'asav is separate from "bas ploni l'ploni" (ha b'zug rishon, ha b'zug sheini).

    (OK, back to your regularly scheduled blog discussion :)

  14. See R' Ya'akov Emden's comment in Sotah (IIRC) as to what zivug rishon vs. sheni means.

  15. On Anonymous's comment, "
    1) A husband and a wife should always be absolutely honest and never ever be dishonest with each other.
    I cant imagine any other kind of marriage working in the long run."

    While I tend to agree with you in terms of what I do and what I would advise other to do, we do see that Rifka used subterfuge with her husband twice. The first time it was to get Yaakov the bracha and the second time it was to get him out of the area. She didn't outright lie, but she didn't honestly state her concerns either.