When I went to summer camp we used to do a lot of “mixers”—you know, the games where a group of people gets to learn a little more about the others in the circle. My favorite of all the mixers was a game we called, “Two Truths and a Lie.” The game was easy. Each person listed three things about himself or herself. Two needed to be true, and one needed to be a lie. Then the group would debate and vote on which was the lie. I was great at this game. I would use two stories that were true and unbelievable, and for my lie I would tweak something that most people knew about me. For example, my lie would be something like, “I have been a vegetarian for ten years,” when in fact I had been a vegetarian for twelve. It was like a lie within a lie because I was intentionally misrepresenting something I was counting on the group to know about me. It worked pretty well. The elements of truth within the lie made it believable enough that the fictional piece would be immediately considered fact. The schadenfreude of tricking my peers was seldom paralleled.
I also pride myself in being an excellent lie-spotter. Even today I love to play poker and another card game involving lying whose name is not appropriate for Shabbat services. These games are not about the cards—they’re about the people holding the cards and how well they lie or tell the truth. When a poker player spots the sign that an opponent is not being honest, we call it a tell. When somebody figures out your tell, you are likely to lose all the chips in front of you.
We have heard quite a bit lately about people getting caught in dishonesty. Governor Rod Blagojevich and Bernie Madoff dominate our news cycle of late. Governor Blagojevich is accused of trying to sell the senate seat that President Elect Obama has left empty. His behavior has been so disdainful, he is still carrying out his duties as governor. Even though there are no official charges brought against him, something about his behavior just doesn’t sit right. Even the Senate has declared that they will not acknowledge anything he does from now on because of his political taint. And if a group of 90-some politicians thinks he’s untrustworthy….
Mr. Madoff’s lies are far-reaching. To be honest, I do not believe I understand it completely, but here is my layman’s version of the scam. He told people that they would be guaranteed 12% return on their investments through him. This is a good thing, so people would send him very large checks, which he did not actually invest. When one of his customers would view a statement, they would see an increase in their investments, but it was all false. So with the economy crashing and his investors asking for their money, the scam was exposed. It is still unclear how much of his estimated ½-billion dollar value is real and how much is just declared value built up from the scheme. His lie destroyed the lives of hundreds of people and charities who invested with him, and bankrupted companies who thought they had millions of dollars. What is worse is that he is a member of the Jewish community. His deceit makes all of us look bad.
I am not fond of generalizations, but I think it is safe to say that everyone occasionally tells lies, even if only by omitting bits of the truth. Just yesterday Natalie and I were discussing the current situation in Israel in front of Gabriel. He started asking questions about why they are fighting. We told him an abbreviated version of the situation, leaving out details and over-simplifying both sides of the conflict. It may not have been an outright lie, but we were not completely truthful with him, either. Is that wrong of us? Should we have told him the whole truth?
What about the tooth fairy? Is it okay to tell our children that a fairy flies around taking teeth and leaving money for them? Should we berate our Christian friends and neighbors for the Santa Claus myth? What about Chanukah? Should we continue to tell the story of the oil lasting eight days when we know it is historically inaccurate? What about Bible stories? Where do we draw the line?
It is human nature to embellish. Our parents tell us not to tell lies, and we do the same to our children. As I teach my sixth grade Bible students, you don’t tell people not to do something that they’re already not doing. In other words, if we were naturally truthful people there would be no need to tell us not to lie. Like Bill Cosby says, God never had to tell the fish, “Don’t jump out of the water.” But we have to be told that honesty is the best policy.
The Torah teaches us not to bear false witness against our neighbors and not to swear falsely by God’s name, which we learn whenever we study the Ten Commandments. Both of these commandments can be read as specific to certain situations. Not bearing false witness can be seen as a court-room commandment. The legal language used here lends to it being interpreted as applicable only when on the witness stand. Not swearing falsely by God’s name refers specifically to oaths. So if we take the most literal meaning of these two commandments, we know not to lie in court or when using God’s name to take a vow.
We know that lies are bad. It is engrained into our upbringing. I even tell my children and students that they get into less trouble when they tell the truth. And yet the Torah never says, “Don’t lie.” There is never an absolute restriction against falsehoods. Always a commandment with conditions that can be interpreted into, “That doesn’t apply to me in this circumstance.” Perhaps that is the Torah’s way of telling us that there is no such thing as absolute honesty.
The Torah does describe how to punish dishonesty, and it takes four verses to describe the crime and punishment. Leviticus 5:21-24 call it a trespass against God to deal falsely with our neighbor in business, through robbery, fraud, a pledge, finding a lost object, or “any one of the various things that one may do and sin thereby.” The punishment is harsh. The one who lies must pay back 120% to the other. They must be paid back, then given another fifth on top of what they originally lost. That’s huge! I have never heard of a 20% loan. It seems to be a very harsh punishment.
There is also a notion in the Talmud called lashon hara, guarding against evil speech. What is evil speech? This is also up for interpretation. We are not to use our words for evil purposes. Do not gossip, insult, or speak slanderously about our neighbor. In the American court system, if it is truthful it is not slander. According to Jewish law, even speaking the truth can be slanderous. The restriction of lashon hara is not to guard against falsehood. It is to guard against that which hurts another person.
Perhaps that is the piece of Jewish law that teaches us about honesty. In the words of Rabbi Hillel, “Do not do to another person that which is hateful to you. All the rest is commentary….” The guiding principal is not whether what we are saying is completely true, partially true, or outright false. The important thing is how it feels, our intent, and how we treat others with our words.
When we discover that we have been lied to, our trust feels violated. We feel foolish for believing something that sounded too good to be true. We protect ourselves under a shroud of cynicism that blurs any future stories we hear. Even if we find out that the intent was to teach something important, the message is lost in the pain of that violation of trust, and the intent no longer matters. As Jews, the concept of lashon hara implores us to be very careful with the words we use. Even with the best of intentions, there is a line that we must be careful not to cross. The difference between an embellishment to enhance our message and a falsehood that obscures it is a subtle difference. But when our tale becomes a public one, and people share in the message it is the difference between fame and notoriety.
Since guarding our tongues is so important to us, we can be harsh critics of those who make mistakes in this realm. Being hurt by a lie can blind us to the need of our neighbor to make tshuvah, to repent, apologize, and mend their ways. It will be impossible for Madoff to pay back the money he never had, and it is sometimes impossible for our trust to be given back. But we are a people who does not do to others what we would not have done to us. We would not withhold forgiveness when someone is truly sorry—we understand the need for tshuvah.
The book of Proverbs says, “Truthful speech abides forever, A lying tongue for but a moment” (12:19). In other words, the pain caused by a lie will go away. The healing that comes from the truth will be lasting.
Where do we go from here?
Let us enter 2009 with compassion. We have been hurt by the past, and we will deal with it as a community. We may be skeptical for a while, but we will believe again. May we find the coming year full of blessing and reasons to believe in each other anew.