Liar, liar

Liar, liar

Vayera | Genesis 18:1-22:24

Rabbi Yisrael Salanter (19th century, Lithuania and Germany) was the founder of the Mussar movement, which emphasized the centrality of ethical behavior in Judaism. He taught, “Not everything that is thought should be said, and not everything that is said should be repeated, and not everything that is repeated should be remembered.”

Just because something can be said doesn’t mean it should be said.

In Vayera, Abraham invites three angels to his tent, and they tell him that in a year’s time Sarah will have borne him a son. Sarah overhears this announcement and laughs, saying to herself, “Now that I am withered, am I to have enjoyment — with my husband so old?” Yet when God speaks to Abraham, He reports that Sarah said, “Shall I in truth bear a child, old as I am?”

God changes Sarah’s words — God lies — so that Abraham will not be hurt and to prevent dissension between husband and wife. God could have reported Sarah’s words about Abraham’s age and presumed sexual inadequacy accurately, but what purpose would that serve? God obviously considered shalom bayit, the harmonious relationship between spouses, more important than the truthful statement of Sarah’s potentially hurtful words.

Just because something can be said doesn’t mean it should be said.

It has probably happened that someone has approached you and said, “Can I be really honest with you?” You know you’re about to hear something unpleasant, even painful. Yet, more often than not, there’s no reason you need the information in the first place; it’s not something you can do anything about. After all, at least in my experience, people rarely preface compliments or helpful advice with questions about honesty.

Again, just because something can be said doesn’t mean it should be said.

It’s not necessary to “let it all hang out” — not every thought and feeling needs to be verbalized. It’s true that honesty is often the best policy — but not always. The commandment found in the Aseret Hadibrot “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” is not a general prohibition against lying, but a specific prohibition of perjury — lying in court.

There are times when lying is, in fact, the right thing to do — imagine a coworker’s abusive ex-husband asking you for her new address. The Talmud in Ketubot teaches that we are to describe all brides as beautiful and graceful, no matter the objective reality, because each bride is surely beautiful to her husband. And we learn in Bava Metzia that a Torah scholar can understate the extent of his learning — that is, lie — out of modesty or to avoid discouraging those who are less accomplished.

Just because something is true doesn’t mean it must be said.

And so God lied to Abraham, because telling the truth about Sarah’s words would benefit no one but would surely hurt and humiliate Abraham. The Talmud in Yevamot concludes, “Great is peace, seeing that for its sake, even God modified the truth.”

There are many things that are true, feelings and opinions that are honest, but that’s not enough. If what you are about to say serves no good or useful purpose but may hurt or humiliate someone else, why say it?

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