Lies and Truths
It might seem strange that we are at a point in time that we need to talk about telling the truth, but we are clearly at that point in time.
The Torah says: “You must not carry false rumors; you shall not join hands with the guilty to act as a malicious witness.” (Exodus 23:1)
You only lie when you know what the truth is. You don’t tell a lie unless you feel like telling the truth will cause a problem.
But if you lie all the time, you start forgetting what the truth is. You get to a point where you cannot tell the truth between truth and lies.
The Torah answers a lot of basic questions.
How does a nation create a decent society?
How should leaders act?
The medieval Jewish commentator Rashbam writes: “Just as a witness is warned not to lie in court, the judges are warned not to accept such testimony. They must not listen to testimony which is patently a lie but make their own inquiries to determine if the testimony conform to the facts.”
No matter how powerful a witness might be, or what social status he/she possesses, when it comes to what is publicly proclaimed, the response must be: check it out.
Lies, perjury, untruths, when repeated often enough, become part of the cultural landscape and poisons the moral environment.
In Pirke Avot, Simeon ben Shetach observes: “Be careful of what you say, because through what you say others may learn to falsify, to lie.”
When a lie remains unchallenged, in whatever arena that falsehood appears, the very expression of that lie becomes “normalized.”
Bret Stephens, a columnist for the New York Times and Pulitzer Prize winner, raised the issue of truth and trust in the public arena.
Why, he asks, do we accept patently false lies?
Because, he says, truth is what you can get away with; it has become a denial of reality.
He further said that public officials speaking falsehoods has become normalized; it exists to entertain.
You turn on the television every night to see what lie is being perpetrated that day by some of the highest leaders.
But we should never be entertained by lies, no matter how preposterous and ignorant they are.
The lie is rationalized out of existence; it has become a performance art.
In the process we see the decay of intellectual honesty. The acceptance of such lying is not only dangerous; it is catastrophic.
And it is essential that any society must support those whose responsibility it is to report, question, and examine with tenacity what passes for news.
Or as Stephens put it: “We have to see things for what they are before we interpret them for what we would wish them to be.”
Absent that, the institutions we have come to rely upon will crumble to dust amidst the rumors and the buzz and all the spinning.
Words constitute the ultimate texture and stuff of our moral beings.
We become spiritual animals when we become verbal animals.
Words are spirit.
The quality of a civilization depends upon its ability to discern and reveal truth and this depends on the scope and purity of its language.
The purity of language: this is what the Torah mandated, not just in the courts but also in the everyday traffic of life.
We’re not asking for that much.
All we demand is proper, decent and honest speech in our homes, our communities and our nation.