In a deceptively tiny sentence fragment, we are presented with a challenging commandment. Our days often include dishonesties of various proportions, sometimes to others, and sometimes to ourselves. We tend to bend the truth to protect interests and egos. And so a simple mitzva can be daunting indeed. See:
|23: 7 – Keep far from falsehood…
|כג: ז – מִדְּבַר־שֶׁ֖קֶר תִּרְחָק…
The first thing we notice in the phrase is the extreme formulation. The mitzva isn’t simply “Don’t lie ”, or “Tell the truth”. It isn’t enough to be basically honest. We must be as distant as we can from untruth. This has many ramifications to consider.
The Talmud presents one of these in Tractate Shvuot 30:b. There, the Rabbis use this verse as a source proof that a judge should not “advocate for his statements”. Rashi explains that this applies to one who has made a judgment, and then realizes that he made a mistake. He must not try to defend that mistake with arguments to justify it. Even if it is a blow to his ego, he must gather the parties and correct the mistake.
שבועות ל׳ :ב
תנו רבנן: מניין לדיין שלא יעשה סניגרון לדבריו? תלמוד לומר: “מדבר שקר תרחק”.
לא יעשה סניגרון לדבריו – אם דן דין ולבו נוקפו לומר שהוא טועה לא יחזיק דבריו להביא ראיות להעמידם שהוא בוש לחזור אלא לכל צדדים יחזור להוציא דין לאמיתו:
It would be comforting for all of us who aren’t professional judges to assume that this point doesn’t apply to us. But the moral underpinning is universally relevant, especially in times of social, cultural and religious division. It is all too easy to make an argument for one’s own “side”, or reject a point from one’s “opponent”. But this is deeply problematic and goes against the grain of the Talmud’s argument. As the Enlightenment thinker, John Locke stated, “To love truth for truth’s sake is the principal part of human perfection in this world, and the seed-plot of all other virtues.” To love truth for its own sake is to consider it without regard to party or position.
This value was centrally important to Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook, O”BM. Here are two simple excerpts from his charges to consider the ideas and arguments of others:
“…Everyone, the individual or the community, must take to heart this admonition: that together with the need to defend the particular position to which one is attached by natural inclination, habit or training, one must know how to utilize the positions that have found a following among other people and their parties…”
Orot, pp. 70-72
“…It is for us to decide that a hidden force directing our steps toward the good exists in each camp, and in every person, especially among all to whom the general worth of the Jewish people and its hopes are precious in any measure.
Let us be known by the general name of the people of Israel, not by the name of a party or a camp…”
Maamore Ha-Rayah, pp. 76-77
This idea is quintessentially Jewish. We are told that the Torah has 70 facets, and that different conclusions can both be the words of the Living God. As Nachmanides explains in the introduction to his commentary Milchmot Hashem:
“כי יודע כל לומד תלמודנו שאין במחלוקת מפרשיו ראיות גמורות, ולא ברוב קושיות חלוטות, שאין בחכמה הזאת מופת ברור, כגון חשבוני התשבורות ונסיוני התכונה…”
“Anyone familiar with the study of our Talmud knows that the differing sides in any argument never have absolute proof, nor in most difficult decisions. For there isn’t objective clarity in this area of study, like there is in [math].”
May we pursue the intellectual humility to listen to those with whom we disagree, both in the spirit of love of truth for its own sake, but also to build the unity we need to triumph over hard times and move towards Redemption.