Thursday, November 05, 2009

truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth

Before we get to an interesting Rashi in this week’s parsha and what I think it means, we need a little background about the midah of emes. Chazal tell us (Shabbos 55) that “chosamo shel Hasem emes,” G-d’s seal is truth. Why is G-d’s seal (whatever that means) truth and not some other trait like kindness, justice, mercy, etc.? Maharal explains (Nesivos Olam, Nesiv haEmes ch. 1) that the midah of truth is unique because there is only one truth under any and all circumstances. 2+2 cannot truthfully not equal 4 – that must be the answer – but there are an infinite number of possible wrong answers. Like truth, G-d’s existence is unwavering. G-d is one, while there are an infinite number of things that might be not-G-d; G-d’s existence must be and always will be.

No creation shows the same similarity to the trait of truth. The very possibility of any creation not existing or ceasing to exist marks it as qualitatively different from 2+2=4, which must be so and always will be so. Therefore, we ascribe the trait of truth in its purest form to G-d alone (see also Kuntres Emunah u’Bitachon 1:9 printed in Chazon Ish Taharos [it is omitted from the small edition] for his comparison between G-d's existence and “muskalos” [a priori truths]).

The Midrash (B”R 8:5) describes a tremendous debate which took place in Heaven over the question of whether or not to create man. Truth objected to the creation of man, and as a result G-d cast it out of Heaven. R’ Nachum Ziv (Kitvei HaSaba m’Kelm v’Talmidav, vol 1) writes that truth must be thrown into this world -- this is not its natural environment. A trait that is so special that only it can be used as G-d’s seal is too spiritually pristine for our world and does not fit in.

Getting to our parsha: When Sarah laughs at the possibility of her having a child in old age, she also remarks on her husband Avraham’s old age. However, when G-d tells Avraham what happened, he omits any mention of Sarah’s comment about him. Rashi explains that we see that a little “white lie”, a deviation from the exact truth, is permitted for the sake of peace. Rather than tell Avraham that Sarah doubted that he could have children, Hashem presented her remarks as only doubts about her own ability to conceive, preserving the "shalom bayis" of Avraham's household.

Question: if it will make peace between two accountants, can 2+2 suddenly equal 5? Of course not. So how can G-d, whose seal is truth precisely because truth is eternal, unchanging, "muchrach" and without substitute, just as G-d is, utter what is not the truth? It's a contradiction in terms to speak of G-d and falsehood in the same sentence. So how does this work? I'm deliberately dividing this into a few posts because: 1) you may not like one part (I'm not sure I like my setup of the kashe, but the hesber will be nice, I hope!) and still take something away from the rest; 2) I'm still working through where I am going. Stay tuned...


  1. Rav Dessler writes that sometimes "truth" is "falsehood" if telling the truth will have negative or "evil" consequences. He says that sometimes "truth" is not about facts but about good results.

    Obviously, factual truth is the first option, but in a situation such as that in the parsha, ommitting something is not a "lie," it is actually "truth."

  2. I don't understand that idea. Does 2+2 become 5 if its being 4 will unbalance the ledger and produce negative consequences?

  3. there is an anecdote in the Gemara about the wife who always would make the opposite of what her husband requested for dinner. The son, who conveyed the messages, figured this out and so switched the request in order to get what his father really wanted. When his father found out, he put a stop to it even though it would appear to have been a clever solution for shalom bayis.

  4. Your question is asked by the Rishonim

    Maybe on your blog I think I once did a long commment on this topic based on the Ritva on kallah na'ah v'chassudah but I can't recall what i said.

  5. Rabbi Dr. Gary Schreiber once said that there is Truth, and there is Objective Truth. Objective Truth is whatever will help you achieve your objective.