I was speaking to a colleague earlier this week, as she was reflecting on her experience listening to people tell the stories of their lives. She continued, “Everybody lies, and some people lie more than others.”
Surprisingly, we read a story in this week’s parasha that almost gives support to this very human behavior of lying… or, of bending the truth. Abraham and Sarah are resting in their tent when three men appear, as if out of nowhere, to pay them a visit. Abraham goes out to greet them, and one of them announces, out of the blue, that Sarah will give birth to a son within a year’s time. For years, Abraham and Sarah had been trying to have a child together; when this visitor gave his announcement, he wasn’t speaking to Sarah directly.
Sarah is listening to the conversation from outside the tent. When Sarah hears, she laughs in disbelief.
“Now that I am dried up, am I to have the enjoyment of my own child? And my husband is so old!” (Genesis 18:12)
Thankfully, Abraham doesn’t hear Sarah directly either. God reports to Abraham what Sarah had said, putting a different spin on Sarah’s words.
“Why,” said God to Abraham, “did Sarah laugh, saying, ‘Will I really have my own child? And I am so old!’” (Genesis 18:13)
Here, it seems that God has chosen to innovate on the truth of what Sarah said; in other words, God is telling a white lie. Of course, God seems to say, Sarah would never call her husband old! That would hurt his feelings!
Anyone whose partner has ever asked them, “Do I look good in this?” has the life experience required to relate to this moment. If they don’t look good, in whatever it is, what exactly are you going to say? Perhaps, “Um, it looks good, but what if you wore different shoes…?” The temptation to say, “Yes, you look amazing,” regardless of whatever your actual opinion might be, is real in these situations. If I don’t say yes, we think to ourselves, they’ll be upset and it’ll be a terrible night. The correct answer is, or seems to be, that they look amazing.
The Etz Hayim Torah & Commentary backs up this intuition with no less than three different citations from traditional Jewish teaching. Talmud Ketubot (16b-17a) teaches that a person is not obligated to tell the whole truth if it will hurt another’s feelings, and Talmud Yevamot (65a) teaches that one may say something untrue for the sake of peace. Midrash Genesis Rabbah (48:18) teaches that although truth is an important Jewish value, it sometimes has to be compromised to maintain harmony between husband and wife – that is, in a romantic and familial relationship. The Etz Hayim commentary goes further, stating, “Using the principle of truth as an excuse cannot justify words that wound another person.”
As I was exploring these teachings with Beit T’Shuvah residents this week, I heard many impassioned and well-reasoned comments against the opinions of the Talmud and Midrash. Several people told stories of parents keeping family secrets from them as children, using the justification that telling the children the truth would hurt their feelings. The people that lived through these experiences held the view that knowing the truth, painful as it may be, is certainly better than living with secrets and lies. Another resident made the point that if there is an unpleasant truth to be discovered, it’s best to hear it from the people that care about you most, as the truth will certainly come out sooner or later.
As the conversation continued, another resident articulated an important distinction: there are white lies, and there are whoppers. White lies are intended to protect people’s feelings, and further, they do not obscure the truth. In the story of Abraham and Sarah, it is no secret that Abraham is old! It’s just that calling someone old, to their face, might be hurtful. Whoppers, on the other hand, are shocking once they are revealed. Once the truth comes out, some sort of mess will probably need to be cleaned up: emotionally, financially, or otherwise.
As I think about this distinction between white lies and whoppers, I recall the Etz Hayim commentary I mentioned above: we may not wound another person, saying, “I was only telling the truth.” We are instructed to never use the truth as a method of inflicting emotional harm – even more so, we may never use lies as a method of inflicting harm. If the lie we are telling is truly a white lie, no one will be harmed when the truth comes out. No one will even be surprised! But if you say something untrue, and when the truth comes out, people are hurt in any way, you have certainly told a whopper.
As we reflect on our week and move towards Shabbat, may we be mindful of our words, remembering that, while kindness may engender white lies, whoppers inflict pain.
May we be mindful of the truth, treating it with the respect it deserves rather than as a weapon, wielded in anger or fear or shame.
And may we heal from our exposed family secrets, reaching out to one another and to God for comfort as we face the truth and become whole again.