Take a Seat on the Throne of Mercy – Yom Kippur 5780

Think about an argument that you have had with someone in the past year.  Some time when you really got angry.  Picture the scene.  What did the other person do and say?  What did you do and say?  Think back to what led up to the fight, and what happened after it was over.  Are you still angry about it?

Now I have a question: What color were the other person’s eyes?  Can you even picture their face, or is it a blur?

It is not only when we are in a fight that we don’t look at one another.  We tend to be pretty self-centered in most of our interactions.  As society becomes more fractured and people become more atomized, this is only getting worse.

Self-centeredness lends itself to being more judgmental of others.  We are less willing to see things from another person’s perspective.

And yet, that is exactly what we ask God to do for us.  We want God to take note of us, to see things from our perspective, and have mercy.

It is ironic, because the dominant depiction of God during the High Holidays is as a King.  Last week, for Rosh Hashanah, we celebrated creation.  God is a Creator King.  Today, on Yom Kippur, we stand in judgment before our creator.  God is a Judge King.  

What does every King need? A throne, of course.  The Hebrew word for throne is kisei. The image of God’s kisei appears frequently in our High Holiday prayers.

One of those thrones appears in the prayer, Unetaneh TokefV’yikon b’chesed kis’ekha — “Your throne is established in love.”  V’teshev alav be’emet — “and You sit upon it in truth.  ‘Truth’ for you are judge and prosecutor, expert and witness…” The image is of God as a King and a Judge, reviewing the deeds of all of Creation, passing judgment on us on Rosh Hashanah and sealing it on Yom Kippur.  It is a terrifying image, suggesting that our actions in the past year seal our fate in the year to come.  There is no escaping the truth of our deeds.  The best we can do is avert the severity of the decree.  It is not particularly reassuring.

Fortunately, this is not the only kind of throne that we find in the Mahzor.  Another part of our Yom Kippur service is called Selichot.  We recite the words El Melekh yoshev al kisei rachamim.  “God, King, who sits on a throne of mercy.”  That is the image of God that we want.  “acting with unbounded grace, forgiving the sin of Your people, one by one, as each comes before You, generously forgiving sinners and pardoning transgressors, acting charitably with every living thing; do not repay them for their misdeeds.” The God of Selichot is the polar opposite of the God of Unetaneh Tokef: a God of mercy rather than a God of justice.

Our goal, through the season of repentance, is to elevate the Divine King from the Throne of Judgment to the Throne of Mercy.  It is why, for example, we add an extra l’eilah to the Kaddish.  L’eilah l’eilah: Higher and higher.  Rise up, O Lord, to Your Throne of Mercy.

This tension between justice and mercy, din and rachamim; law and righteousness, mishpat and tzedek, is found throughout Jewish tradition.  

It is in the commentaries and midrash and even in the Bible itself.  It is reflected in two most commonly appearing Divine names.  Yud Hei Vav Hei is the unpronounceable name that we read as Adonai or, “The Lord.”  The other name is Elohim, which we translate simply as “God.”

Jewish tradition understands these two names as reflections of the two aspects of the Divine persona.  These attributes oppose and balance one another.  Adonai is mercy and Elohim is Judgment.

Throughout the creation story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, the Divine is repeatedly referred to by both names, together: Adonai Elohim—”The Lord, God.”  This is atypical.  Usually, the Torah uses one or the other name.  It must mean something important.  A midrash offers a parable (Genesis Rabbah 12:15).

There once was a human king who had some drinking cups.   The king said to himself, “if I put hot water in them, they will shatter, and if I put cold water in them, they will crack.  What to do?  What to do?”

So what did the king do? He mixed the hot water with the cold water and then filled up the glasses so that they would not break.  (This is not rocket science, folks.)

So too did the Blessed Holy One say: “If I create the world only with the attribute of compassion alone, I will tolerate everything and the sins will proliferate uncontrollably.  But if I create the world only with the attribute of justice alone, how would it be able to stand?”

“So,” the Lord God concludes, “I will create it with both judgment and compassion.”

So far, this is a pretty straightforward midrash.  There are several rabbinic texts that say something similar.  But the two concluding words are unique:  V’halevai ya’amod.  “Would that it stands.”

This ending is delightfully ambiguous.  God says, “I’ll give this a shot.  I hope it works.”

The resulting world, our world, is a confusing mess.  Fate is unpredictable, and may or may not reflect a fair consequence of our actions.

This tension is on display in full force in the Book of Jonah, which we will read this afternoon.  The book opens with God’s command to deliver a prophecy against the residents of the wicked city of Nineveh. Without any explanation whatsoever, Jonah runs the opposite direction, booking passage on a ship.  When the inevitable storm appears, Jonah is asleep in the cargo hold.  The other sailors are doing everything possible to survive.  They each pray to their own gods.  They throw overboard anything that is not nailed down.

Nothing works.  When the captain finds Jonah asleep, he is incredulous.  “How can you be sleeping at a time like this!  Get up and cry out to your god!  Ulai—Maybe the god will give us a thought and we will not perish!”

Jonah ignores the captain in silence.  It’s like he wants to go down with the ship.  So they cast lots to identify the person on whose account the storm has come.  Of course, the lots indicate Jonah.

“What did you do?” the sailors cry.

Again, Jonah is silent.  

“What can we do to calm the sea?” they ask.

Finally Jonah speaks, “Throw me overboard and the sea will calm down, for I am the cause.”

The sailors are heartbroken.  They do not want to perform such a terrible action.  But the storm is raging stronger by the minute, and they have no alternative.  Before they do it, they offer a prayer to Jonah’s God.  “Please, Lord, do not let us perish on account of this man’s life.  Do not hold us guilty of killing an innocent person…!” Then they toss the prophet, and the storm ceases.  In appreciation, the sailors offer sacrifices and make vows to God.  

What is up with Jonah?  Why does he run?  The text offers no explanation.  You would think that he might try to argue with God.  Perhaps he could pray when the captain approaches him.  What is going on in this guy’s head? The man has a death wish.  He is on a one-way journey of self-destruction.  If not for the piety of the sailors, he would have brought them down with him.

God will not let Jonah off so easy.  Instead of letting him drown, God sends a big fish to swallow Jonah alive and deposit him on dry land after three days.  God orders Jonah, once again, to deliver a prophecy of destruction to Nineveh.  Realizing that there is no escape, Jonah performs his task.  He walks through the streets declaring, Od arba’im yom v’Ninveh neh’pachet—”Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overturned!”

Compelled by these five inspiring words, the entire city—from the King to the people to the livestock—puts on sackcloth and fasts in repentance.  God backs down from the evil that had been planned for them.

Jonah’s reaction is exactly the opposite.  The forgiveness of the Ninevites “was exceedingly evil to Jonah, and he was angry.”

Now, finally, at the beginning of chapter four, Jonah reveals his motivations in what the text describes as a prayer to God.  It does not sound much like a prayer, though.  “This is exactly what I said would happen.  That’s why I ran away so quickly.  I knew that You are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, repenting of evil.  Now, Lord, please take my life, for I would rather die than live.”

Jonah still harbors his death wish.  Why is he so upset? In this book, God is governed exclusively by the attribute of mercy.  Jonah knows it well.  He is certain that when the Ninevites hear his prophecy of doom and destruction, they will repent.

God, who is always ready to forgive a sinner, will then have to forgive the Ninevites.  Jonah’s prophecy of devastation will never come about and he will be made to look the fool. He would rather die than be embarrassed.

If God is driven solely by mercy in this story, then Jonah is governed by strict judgment.  The world he wants to live in is a world in which the wicked are always punished. He is willing to suffer to make this happen.  Jonah would rather die than act to prevent the deaths of others he deems not worthy. He wants to invoke the God of justice, but this is not a story about the God of Justice.  In this book, it is a merciful God who saves the sailors, prevents Jonah from drowning, and forgives the Ninevites, along with their animals.

Jonah is closed off to the possibility of change.  He is closed off to considering the internal feelings, thoughts, and experiences of anyone but himself.  He will not allow himself to consider it.  Justice prevents it.

Contrast him with the ship’s captain.  The captain says Ulai—”Maybe.”  What a beautiful, hopeful word.  The captain does not know why the storm has risen.  His world, and that of the Ninevites, is one in which is mercy is possible.  He does not know if Jonah’s prayer will work.  But he is hopeful.  Ulai.  “Maybe the god will give us a thought and we will not perish,” he offers wistfully.

The captain’s ulai sounds like God’s Halevai ya’amod from the midrash of the cups.  “Would that the world stands.”  We live in a world in which justice and mercy are both present.  Harsh, unrelenting punishment, competing with forgiveness and second chances.

I have suggested before that whenever we talk about God, we are actually talking about ourselves.  The midot, God’s qualities. are what we imagine to be the best possible attributes that a human being can achieve, but better.

So when we ask God to ascend from the throne of judgment to the throne of mercy, and when we read how Jonah is unable to prevent God from acting with compassion, we are talking to ourselves. It is we who are overly judgmental, and who suppress compassion for others in our relationships and interactions.  We are the ones who need to rise to the throne of mercy.

But it is so hard.  Every day, we have to deal with people who drive us crazy.

That person who lives under the same roof, who leaves their socks out on the floor of the living room, or the family member who yells at them for it.  The child who screams at a parent to change the radio station in the car, or the parent who insists on listening to the news.  (This is all hypothetical, of course.)

At school: the disruptive student who takes up 50% of the teacher’s time.

At work: the coworker who stubbornly refuses to see that my solution to the problem at hand is clearly the best one.  The employee who arrives late and goes home early while I work hard at my desk.

In the news: the politician who is clearly driven by the pure quest for power and ego-fulfillment, and the blind, naive supporters.  Why can’t they see the facts, which are so clear and straightforward?

My knee-jerk response is always to judge others.  Like Jonah, I do not take time to consider the experiences and emotions that another person might be feeling.  Instead, I judge that person only according to the impact of their actions on me, personally.

One of my favorite lessons in Pirkei Avot is taught by Rabbi Yehoshua ben Perachya.

Hevei dan et kol ha-adam l’khaf z’khut. “Judge every person to the scale of merit.”

Pirkei Avot 1:6

Imagine scales of justice, with one side representing guilt, and the other side representing or innocence.  We are encouraged to do everything possible to load up the side of innocence. 

I am really good at this, an expert, really… for myself.  I find all sorts of ways to justify my behavior, to excuse my mistakes.  I am so good at defending myself against the critiques of my family members, friends, and coworkers.

When it comes to other people… not so good.  Giving other people the benefit of the doubt does not come easily.

Consider every confrontation with another person that you have ever had.  Estimate the percent of time that you were the side in the right.  What would the percentage be?  50/50?  I don’t think so.

Human beings are naturally biased.  We have a strong tendency to be merciful with ourselves and judgmental of others.  This is called “illusory superiority.”  It is when a person tends to overestimate his or her own qualities and abilities compared to others.

80% of all drivers think they are above average.  Look around the room.  80% of us think that we are better than half of you.  

I know what you are probably thinking, because I am thinking the same thing: “but in my case, I actually am better than average.”  Sure you are.

Mashing up the Pirkei Avot teaching with the Torah’s commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself,” the Baal Shem Tov, the 18th century founder of Hasidism, adds

Since you always find excuses for your own misdeeds, makes excuses also for your fellow.

Is that doable?  The next time someone cuts me off on the freeway without indicating their turning signal, can I make an excuse for them?  Let’s try.

  • Maybe there is a woman about to give birth in the backseat.
  • Maybe there is a toddler having a temper tantrum.
  • Maybe the driver did signal, and I just didn’t see it.
  • Maybe the driver has been on the road for three hours and really needs to find a bathroom.

Imagine the story that would explain the behavior to be perfectly reasonable, even preferable perhaps—given the circumstances.

This is easy when it comes to people we don’t know and whom we do not have to face directly.  It’s easy to make up a creative story that probably isn’t true about someone I have never met before.  What about people we do know?

I recently heard an interview of Alan Alda on the podcast, Hidden Brain.  He wrote a book called If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? in which he draws upon his work helping engineers and scientists to become better communicators.  Effective communication all comes down to “empathy and learning to recognize what the other person is thinking.”

In the interview, Alda quips, “I’ve noticed that the more empathy I have, the less annoying other people are.”

He suggests a simple practice that can help us develop greater empathy, improve communication, and improve our relationships.  While  interacting with someone, try to name the emotion that this person is feeling.  Psychotherapists are trained to do this in clinical settings, but there is no reason why the rest of us cannot employ this practice in our everyday interactions.

Alda suggests that we don’t even need to name the emotion.  Just taking note of the color of a person’s eyes can help us become more loving in our relationships.  

I am far less likely to get mad at somebody if I have a sense of what they are feeling and thinking, or if I have taken a moment to look deeply into their eyes.  This can be an effective way to elevate ourselves from the throne of judgment to the throne of mercy.  It is a way of conveying to myself, and to the other person:  “I see you, and I am listening to you.”

Alda writes that

Real conversation can’t happen if listening is just my waiting for you to finish talking…  Unless I’m responding with my whole self—unless, in fact, I’m willing to be changed by you—I’m probably not really listening.  But if I do listen—openly, naively, and innocently—there’s a chance, possibly the only chance, that a true dialogue and real communication will take place between us.”

Alan Alda.  If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? (New York: 2017). pp. 10-11.

What a profound statement!  In how many of my conversations can I truly say that I was willing to be changed by the other person?

That is what it means to sit on the throne of mercy.  In our prayers, this is the essence of what we ask for from God.  Take note of us.  Look at our lives.  See how much we struggle.  Look at the good things we have done.  Look at how hard we have tried to repair our mistakes, to improve?  See us.  And forgive us.

I do not know whether there is a God who is listening to all of these prayers, but I do know that I ought to be listening.  Am I able to get up from the Throne of Judgment, and take a seat on the Throne of Mercy?

How to Disagree – Rosh Hashanah 5777

Resh Lakish and Rabbi Yochanan were the best of friends.  Their lives were intertwined from the Study Hall, to the home, and to their graves.  (BT Bava Metzia 84a)

Before they meet, Resh Lakish is an outlaw.  One day, as he is walking next to the Jordan River, he sees what he thinks is a beautiful woman in the water.  He enthusiastically removes his weapons and armor and jumps into the water.  To his surprise, the bathing beauty turns out, upon closer inspection, to be none other than Rabbi Yohanan.

“You are too pretty to be a man,” Resh Lakish declares.  “This beauty is wasted on you.  You should be a woman.”

With a sly look at the highwayman, Rabbi Yohanan responds, “But I have a sister.  And she is even more beautiful than I.  If you will repent of your wicked past, you can marry her.”

Reish Lakish eagerly agrees.  So Rabbi Yohanan brings him into the Beit Midrash and teaches him Torah and Mishnah, and transforms Resh Lakish into a great scholar.

They become brothers-in-law, study partners, and best friends.

One day, they are arguing a point of law in the study hall, and things get a little out of hand.   In a moment of frustration, Rabbi Yohanan brings up Resh Lakish’s past as a brigand.  The insults fly back and forth, and before they know it, they are refusing to speak with one another.  Rabbi Yohanan’s anger and hurt swirls about, invoking the spiritual realm.  As sometimes happens with holy men in Talmudic stories, this causes Resh Lakish to fall gravely ill.

Resh Lakish’s wife, Rabbi Yohanan’s sister, visits her brother in desperation, hoping his spiritual intervention might save her spouse.  “Please, my brother, pray for my husband, if only for the sake of his children, your nephews.”

Yohanan refuses.  “Your children can become orphans.  God will provide for them.”

“If not for the children’s sake, then, save him for my sake.  Don’t allow me to become a widow!”

“God takes care of widows,” he stubbornly insists.

Resh Lakish, without his friend to intercede on his behalf, dies.

Rabbi Yohanan, bereft of his friend, falls into a deep depression.  The Rabbis from the Study Hall are so concerned that they send Rabbi Elazar, a mild-mannered scholar, to console him.

Elazar sits by Yohanan’s bedside, and they begin to study together.  Every time Yohanan makes a statement, Elazar nods enthusiastically in agreement, and offers additional arguments to support him.

Yohanan is exasperated.  “Whenever I used to make a statement to Resh Lakish, he would have twenty four objections to me, to which I would have twenty four responses.  That is how we would deepen our knowledge of the law.  And you tell me, ‘Oh, here is something that supports you.’  I don’t need you to tell me that.  I already know that I am right!”

In despair, Rabbi Yohanan rends his garments in mourning and is overcome with weeping.  “Where are you, O son of Lakish?  Where are you?”  He cannot be consoled.

Seeing that there is no remedy for his heartbreak, the Rabbis of the Study Hall pray to God for mercy, and Yohanan dies.

This rich and tragic Talmudic story conveys so well, with deep emotion, Jewish values of machloket, disagreement.

We, as individuals and as a society, are in deep need of guidance when it comes to dealing with those who think differently than us.  Rosh Hashanah offers us an opportunity for taking stock of how we interact with one another in our homes and in our society.  With an election looming, it is an especially important time for us seek productive ways to address disagreement.  Perhaps our tradition can be a source of wisdom.

Let us be careful not to play the revisionist game and claim that there was a glorious time when human beings used to speak to each other with respect and honored opponents who held differing opinions.  And let us not be so naive as to suggest that Jewish culture, in contrast to all other traditions, has always tolerated other ideas.  It is simply not true.

But there is a well-developed idea within our intellectual history that portrays how human beings ought to treat those with whom we disagree.

The goal is not just the intellectual pursuit of Truth, but also the practical implementation of rules for society.  How can we live together when we disagree so fundamentally about how we should live?

The pursuit of truth and peace is best achieved through a blend of vigorous disagreement and mutual respect.  For us Jews, these are deeply held values that are the products of our own unique history.

For 2,000 years, we exercised our minds.  We perfected the art of seeking theoretical analyses of Biblical passages.  We debated the interpretations of the interpretations of the interpretations.  In great depth, we studied laws that had not been implemented for hundreds of years, and for which there was no hope of actual implementation.

As a result, we Jews got really good at reading texts and arguing about ideas.  Perhaps this was the result of our being an exiled people.  Without political autonomy, and no ability to exercise power beyond the confines of our small communities, we turned inward.  We expressed our power on the page and in the study hall.

If we could not fully implement our vision of what life ought to be in the world, we were at least free to develop a vision of the ideal in our minds.  In so doing, we held on to four primary principles of machloket, argument.

1.  Passionate argument is a good thing.  It makes us sharper, and it brings us closer to the truth.

2.  We must respect our opponents, even when we disagree with them.

3.  We can only claim to be in pursuit of truth if we are willing to be convinced by our adversaries’ arguments.

4.  Even when we cannot agree, we still need to find a way to live together.

If we could introduce these four principles into our current relationships, we would have a far more cohesive society.

The tragic story of Rabbi Yohanan and Resh Lakish introduces the issues with great humanity.  The situation begins to decline in the Study Hall.  In a moment of weakness, Rabbi Yohanan takes what, until that moment had been an intellectual disagreement, to heart.  Instead of offering a logical counterargument or accepting defeat, he insults his friend.  He knows exactly where to strike so that it will hurt the most.  He drags up Resh Lakish’s sordid past.

Never mind that Resh Lakish has done teshuvah, that he has left that world long behind.  In bringing it up, Rabbi Yohanan makes a power move, as if to say, “I may have lost this argument, but I am still more pious, holy, and wise than you.”

How often have we heard that?!  Resorting to name calling?  Dredging up personal attacks to avoid engaging with ideas?

Rabbi Yochanan holds the grudge, refusing to intervene to save his friend.  Even his sister cannot break through his stubbornness.

Only when it is too late does Rabbi Yochanan discover what he has done.  He realizes the value of argument.  With Resh Lakish as his intellectual jousting partner, Yochanan was sharpened.  He gained a deeper understanding of truth.

It is remarkable how relevant this ancient story is to our time.

At the extreme are ISIS and their ilk, who seek to create a world in which all who do not share their vision are killed or enslaved.

But there are plenty of other ways, permeating every layer of our civilization, in which we are becoming more polarized.  Our openness to even hearing the opinions of those who disagree with us seems to be waning.  This is a disturbing and dangerous trend.

The current presidential election campaign has been the most in-your-face example of this.  But then again, isn’t every election ugly?  This year is perhaps not an aberration, but a culmination of the building polarization of the past couple of decades.

We might point to the rise of certain consumer technology tools that have fed the flames of this divide.  The popularity of Twitter, with its short, truncated format, lends itself to oversimplification and name-calling.  The extreme ease of passing along internet memes through various forms of social media enables the ugliest characterizations and rumors to circumnavigate world with lightning-fast speed.

I do not mean to sound like a luddite, but there is a terribly harmful side to the miracle of instant communication.

Quite disturbing has been the trend over the past few years to suppress speech at, of all places, college campuses.  There have been numerous efforts to disinvite speakers – many of which have won.  Lecturers have been spat upon.  Speakers have been shouted down to such a degree that they could not continue.  Campus newspapers have been defunded.  Universities have drafted speech codes, the violation of which can result in professors losing jobs or students being expelled.

The evidence reveals that it is perpetrated by both the left and the right, sometimes in response to one another.  Students and professors have reported feeling that they have to self-suppress out of fear of repercussions.

These trends are creating pockets of like-minded thinkers who never have to face ideas that challenge them.  In the tragic story, it is the replacement of the feisty Resh Lakish by the “yes man,” Rabbi Elazar, that – quite literally – kills Rabbi Yochanan.  We should read it as a warning.

When we do permit ourselves to hear other perspectives, do we truly listen with open minds?

The next story is about the famous schools of Hillel and Shammai (BT Eruvin 13b).  It teaches us about the importance of respecting our opponents.

Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel once got into an impassioned argument over a matter of Jewish law.  One school says, “The law is in agreement with our view,” while the other claims, with equal certainty, “The law is in agreement with our view.”

Three years pass without any progress.  One day, a Heavenly Voice suddenly booms across the study hall: Elu v’elu divrei Elohim chayim hen.  “These and these are the words of the living God.”  V’halakhah k’veit Hillel.  “But the law is in agreement with the rulings of Beit Hillel.”

“But how can this be?” the Talmud asks.  If “both are the words of the living God,” what entitles Beit Hillel to determine the law?

The Talmud answers, “Because they were kindly and modest, they studied their own rulings and those of Beit Shammai and were even so humble as to mention the opinions of Beit Shammai before their own.”

We draw two lessons from this remarkable story.  The first, elu v’elu divrei Elohim chayim.  “These and these are the words of the living God.”  Strangely, the Talmud does not ask how it is possible that both Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai could be correct.  It is a given.

This should remind us that, as sure as we might be of our rightness, someone else is just as sure of theirs.  It’s not to say that there is no such thing as truth and everything is whatever a person says it is.  But indeed, there is often more than one solution to a problem.

I learned this lesson from my tenth grade Algebra 3/Trigonometry teacher, Mr. Evanson.  One would think that in a field like math, there is a right and a wrong answer.  But Mr. Evanson was much more concerned with how we solved a problem than in the answer we came up with.  What excited him was seeing different ways of approaching the challenge.  I learned that, even in math, there is often more than one way to arrive at the truth.

So what made the difference?  Not superior logic or better proofs.  It was intellectual openness and respect for difference.  That is why we follow Beit Hillel.  Hillel taught his students to learn from and honor their adversaries.  If I have to state my opponent’s arguments before my own, it means that I have to pay close attention and have an open mind.

Beit Hillel teaches us another lesson: we should always be willing to be proven wrong.  A Mishnah begins Elu d’varim she’chazru Beit Hillel l’horot k’divrei Beit Shammai.  “These are the matters about which Beit Hillel changed their minds and taught according to Beit Shammai.”  And then the Mishnah goes on to list a number of laws.  (Mishnah Eduyot 1:12)

The Mishnah does not need to tell us this.  It could just state the outcome.  Indeed, the Mishnah usually states the majority opinion, along with significant minority opinions.  But to cite opinions that are later abandoned is unusual.

Maimonides explains that it is to be lesson for us.  “For when these honored, pious, generous, and distinguished scholars of the School of Hillel saw that the view of those who disagreed with them was to be preferred to their own, and that others’ deliberations were more correct – they agreed with the others and retracted their view.  How much more should other people, when they see that the truth lies with their opponent, incline to the truth and not be stubborn…”

And he goes on to say that “even if you are able to use proofs to buttress your position, but if you know your friend’s position is correct and that your proofs to the contrary are only due to his weakness in argument, or because you are able to pervert the truth, accept his version and forsake further argument.”

Maimonides nails it.  How often is it that we hang on to a position out of stubbornness and ego?

Wouldn’t it be refreshing to occasionally hear a politician say, “My opponent is right.  After considering all the facts and the arguments, I have concluded that my earlier position is wrong.  And now I think differently.”  A candidate who had the humility and the courage to say that would probably earn my vote.

But what about when there is no resolution – when two sides are firmly entrenched in their positions about how society should function?

A Mishnah tells how Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel disagree about several areas of personal status law.  While it might not seem so today, in the ancient world, this was a huge deal.  It could mean the difference between a child being legitimate or illegitimate, which could have life-long implications affecting marriage and social acceptance.

The two schools disagree with one another.  Nevertheless, the Mishnah concludes, “even though the one invalidated and the other validated, Beit Shammai did not refrain from marrying women from Beit Hilllel, and Beit Hillel did not refrain from marrying women from Beit Shammai.”  (Mishnah Eduyot 4:8)

As much as each side “knew” that it was correct, they shared a higher value.  “We are one people.  Even if we can’t come to an agreement, we will still find a way to live together.”

This is such a lovely example.  Because the way the Mishnah finds to express their shared value is in the most intimate way possible.  Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai joined their houses together.  They intermarried with one another.

This would be like the Montague’s and the Capulet’s getting together to throw an engagement party for Romeo and Juliet.

While we may not be able to change the polarization that plagues our world, in this new year, we can begin to take small but significant steps in our own lives, drawing upon the ancient wisdom of our tradition.

Judaism treasures machloket.  Vigorous questioning and challenging of each other offers us the surest path to truth.

In doing so, however, we must always maintain the dignity of our opponents, honoring them even when we disagree.

We also have to be open to being convinced.  If we are not willing to change our minds, than we cannot claim to be seeking truth.

And finally, we have got to remain sincerely committed to living together in peace, despite our differences.

In this new year, may we have the courage and humility to argue, listen, and respect one another with open minds and open hearts.

Shanah Tovah.

Distance Yourself From Lying Words – Mishpatim 5775

In one of my favorite scenes from Seinfeld, Jerry claims to have never watched a single episode of Melrose Place.  He is called on it, and is being forced to take a lie detector test to prove it.  So he turns to the expert for advice.

Jerry: So George, how do I beat this lie detector?

George: I’m sorry, Jerry I can’t help you.

Jerry: Come on, you’ve got the gift. You’re the only one that can help me.

George: Jerry, I can’t. It’s like saying to Pavorotti, “Teach me to sing like you.”

Jerry: All right, well I’ve got to go take this test. I can’t believe I’m doing this.

George: Jerry, just remember. It’s not a lie… if you believe it.

How true.  How true.

A study published about fifteen years ago found that people say things that they do not know to be factually true up to about two hundred times per day.  Men tend to lie about 20% more often than women.  Women, it turns out, are much better at it than men.

The study’s author, a social psychologist from the University of Budapest named Peter Steignitz, found that 41% of lies are to cover up some sort of misbehavior, 14% are “white lies” that “make social life possible,” and 6% of lies are sheer laziness.  In most cases, Steignitz concluded, lies are harmless.  In fact, he claimed, if nobody on earth lied anymore, “then this planet would end up completely deserted.  There would be 100 wars.”  His advice:  “Let us be honest about our lies.”

So, how about some honesty?  Someone comes up to you and says, excitedly: “how do you like my new haircut.”  It’s hideous.  But what do you say?

Your friend skips out on a dinner that you are both invited to.  You know that he is at a hockey game, but he asks you to tell the host that he is home sick.  What do you tell the host?

There are many everyday situations in which the simple telling of a white lie could save embarrassment, smooth over social interactions, or even get us out of trouble.  Innocuous, right?

The social science notwithstanding, perhaps we should not be so flippant about the harmlessness of most lies.  The truth is, being truthful is considered by most religious and ethical traditions to be the morally correct path.

Indeed, the Torah insists on our honesty on numerous occasions, in numerous contexts.  On the other hand, the Bible’s stories are filled with people, including our greatest biblical heroes, lying themselves silly.

Both Abraham and Isaac lie about their wives, passing them off as their sisters, in order to not be killed.  Jacob lies to his father Isaac, claiming to be his brother Esau in order to steal the blessing.  In return, everybody lies to Jacob.  After Jacob dies, Joseph’s brothers lie to him about their father’s desire for them to make peace.  And all this is just in the book of Genesis!

There seems to be a discrepancy between the ideals of truthfulness contained in the Torah’s law codes, and the real-life experiences of human beings.  Of course, this is entirely consistent with our experiences as well.  We may, in theory, express our commitment to the principle of honesty, and yet, if we are truly honest with ourselves, most of us will probably have to admit that we lie on a daily basis.

The Torah includes many mitzvot that regulate our interactions with each other.  A significant portion of those mitzvot have to do with behaviors that are forbidden.  You shall not murder.  You shall not steal.  You shall not subvert the rights of the needy, and so on.  This morning’s Torah portion presents a particular behavior in a unique way.  מִדְּבַר שֶׁקֶר תִּרְחָק.  “From a lying word stay far away.”  (Exodus 23:7)

It does not say, “you shall not lie,” or “he who lies shall be punished in the following manner.”  It tells us, instead, to distance ourself from lies.  Lying is the only behavior in the entire Torah from which we are commanded to stay away.

Many commentators understand this requirement to be directed specifically at judges.  The commentator Rashbam explains that in a case in which a judgment seems contrived and the witnesses false, but in which we are unable to provide an effective refutation, it is best to stay as far away as possible.  A judge should stay clear of anything which could create the impression that he or she has dealings with something that is corrupt.  (Sforno)

But our sources also understand this injunction to distance ourselves from lying words more broadly.  The Maggid from Kelm claims that a liar is worse than a thief or a robber.  The thief steals when no one is watching, and at night.  The robber will steal at any time, but only from an individual person.  A liar, on the other hand, will lie day or night, to individuals and groups.  Our tradition has many other pithy statements like this extolling the importance of truth.

The truth is, honesty does not come naturally to us.  It is something that must be taught.  Any parent knows this.  The most indiscriminate liars in the world are toddlers.  “I didn’t do it.  It fell by itself.”  Our natural instinct for self-preservation pushes us to lie.

It falls on parents, teachers, and the community to educate children about the importance of truthfulness.  In our family, we try to emphasize that the absolute most important rule is being honest with each other.  Of course, to convey this with any success whatsoever, we have to be honest ourselves, because kids can sniff out dishonesty a mile away.

Perhaps that is what Rabbi Zeira, one of our Sages from the Talmud, is getting at when he teaches that “a person should not tell a child, I will give you something – and then not give it, because this teaches the child falsehood.”  (BT Succah 46b)

The Talmud (BT Yevamot 63a) tells a story about a Sage named Rav, whose wife would constantly mess with him, and it drove him crazy.  If he asked her to make lentils for dinner, she would make peas.  If he asked for peas, she would cook lentils.

When their son Chiyya got older, Rav would send him into the kitchen to pass along his requests for dinner.  Chiyya, a bright child, would switch the requests around.  If his father asked for lentils, he would tell his mother that he wanted peas, and she would then cook lentils, and vice versa.  That way, Rav got exactly what he wanted for dinner every night, and his parents’ fighting improved.

This went on for some time, until one day, Rav commented to his son, “Your mother has gotten better.”

Chiyya then confessed that he had been switching the messages around.

Rav was impressed with his son’s wisdom, acknowledging the popular saying “From your own children you learn reason.”  Nevertheless, he recalled the Bible’s warnings about dishonesty, and told Chiyya not to lie anymore.  Rav recognized that his parental obligation to teach truthfulness to his son overrode any short-term benefit this little white lie may have had.  He and his wife would have to deal with their issues on their own.

Jewish law emphatically emphasizes the importance of truth-telling in certain areas.  When it comes to business, for example, both business owners and customers must be honest at all times.

However, our tradition does not hold truth-telling to be an absolute.  There are circumstances in which it might be appropriate, or possibly even necessary, to say something that is not true.

The Talmud (BT Yevamot 65b) teaches that one may tell a lie in the interests of peace.  Various examples are given.  The question is asked regarding what one should say to an ugly bride on her wedding day.  Beit Shammai insists that one must always tell the truth, while Beit Hillel says that we must praise her as beautiful and full of grace.  Our tradition fallows Beit Hillel.

Other examples are given about when it is permissible to lie, including when life is in danger and when it would bring about peace.  Husbands and wives are not supposed to tell the truth to others about what goes on in the bedroom.  A person who is particularly knowledgeable on a subject should not claim to be an expert.  To do so would be immodest, or could lead to embarrassment if he is then asked a question that he cannot answer.  Finally, a person who has been graciously hosted is not supposed to go around telling people about it, because it could lead to disreputable individuals calling upon the wealthy host.

It would appear that our tradition does not define truth and lies as a straightforward reporting of factually accurate or inaccurate information.

Truth, considered to be one of the pillars of the world, is more complicated.  In Michtav M’Eliyahu (Vol. I, p. 94) Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler explains:  We had better define truth as that which is conducive to good and which conforms with the Will of the Creator, and falsehood as that which furthers the scheme of the yetzer harah, the power of evil in the world.

When the Torah urges us to distance ourselves from lying words, it is really setting an ideal for us to build families and communities that are rooted in honesty.  While little white lies may sometimes be called for, they do take their toll on us.

As the Talmud states (BT Sanhedrin 89b), “this is the punishment of the liar, that even if he speaks the truth – nobody listens to him.”

Our tradition recognizes that reality is complicated,  and that absolutes are often unrealistic.  Nevertheless, we can imagine what a community built on truth looks like, and we can strive to create it.