Ethical will: Truth

Following my previous ‘ethical will’ entry on ‘listening’ and the profoundly divisive aftermath of the 2020 U.S. Presidential elections, which once again reveals a country broken jaggedly in half, I’ve been thinking a lot about the pervasive lack of trust that has come to typify today’s global politics.

Yes, we must listen to one another earnestly, but why don’t we?

Fundamentally, it comes down to a lack of trust. Americans don’t trust one another to have their best interests at heart, nor do they trust their public institutions, nor the fourth estate. Why were the pre-election polls so drastically wrong this year, particularly following the pollsters’ epic embarrassment of 2016? Whence the preposterous, gaping chasm between Americans, policymakers, and opinion-molders?

We don’t trust others to tell us the truth; or perhaps we no longer trust in those truths, which are most available. Access to information used to be conveniently provided to the people by big money interests and power brokers, which used to work for them beautifully, but the modern information age has left them nary a shadow to hide in.

Personally, I find myself increasingly turning to independent and conflicting news sources across the political spectrum to calibrate my impression of reality. More often than not, I remain unconvinced by them all.

Truth is a challenging subject for me because I am the sort who has to push through cowardice to speak it. Still, truthfulness is something that I admired in my father, continue to admire in my mother, and admire in all of my role models. Truth impresses, challenges, and scares me.

The first entry in my ‘ethical will’ focused on being true to one’s self… but what about being honest with others? While I am hardly the most qualified to expound upon this particular ideal, it would be negligent of me to omit it from my will.

What priority should we place on honesty, and what limits might we consider?

According to the Torah we are to distance ourselves from matters/words of falsehood, the only sin from which the Torah warns us to “distance” ourselves (Exodus 23:7):

ืžึดื“ึผึฐื‘ึทืจ-ืฉืึถืงึถืจ, ืชึผึดืจึฐื—ึธืง; ื•ึฐื ึธืงึดื™ ื•ึฐืฆึทื“ึผึดื™ืง ืึทืœ-ืชึผึทื”ึฒืจึนื’, ื›ึผึดื™ ืœึนื-ืึทืฆึฐื“ึผึดื™ืง ืจึธืฉืึธืข. Keep thee far from a false matter; and the innocent and righteous slay thou not; for I will not justify the wicked.

Taking a different tack, the Book of Proverbs (a later book of the Hebrew Bible) provides practical counsel on the matter, rather than commanding us (12:19):

ืฉื‚ึฐืคึทืช-ืึฑืžึถืช, ืชึผึดื›ึผื•ึนืŸ ืœึธืขึทื“; ื•ึฐืขึทื“-ืึทืจึฐื’ึผึดื™ืขึธื”, ืœึฐืฉืื•ึนืŸ ืฉืึธืงึถืจ. The lip of truth shall be established for ever; a lying tongue is for a moment.

As expected, truth is a popular theme in Jewish tradition, as I imagine it would be in all faith traditions that lay claim to its mantle, which is to say: all of them. Another popular, oft-cited Jewish text on truth can be found in the Talmud (Tractate Shabbat, 55a):

… ื•ืจ”ืœ ืืžืจ ืชื™ื• ืกื•ืฃ ื—ื•ืชืžื• ืฉืœ ื”ืงื‘”ื” ื“ืืžืจ ืจื‘ื™ ื—ื ื™ื ื ื—ื•ืชืžื• ืฉืœ ื”ืงื‘”ื” ืืžืช ืืžืจ ืจ’ ืฉืžื•ืืœ ื‘ืจ ื ื—ืžื ื™ ืืœื• ื‘ื ื™ ืื“ื ืฉืงื™ื™ืžื• ืืช ื”ืชื•ืจ’ ื›ื•ืœื” ืžืืœืฃ ื•ืขื“ ืชื™ื•… … and [Rabbi] Resh Lakish said: [The letter] ‘tav’ [which is the final letter of the alphabet] is the end of the seal of the Holy One, blessed be He, for R. Hanina said: The seal of the Holy One, blessed be He, is emeth [truth] [which ends with a ‘tav’]. R. Samuel b. Nahmani said: It denotes the people who fulfilled the Torah from ‘alef’ [the first letter of the alphabet] to ‘tav’…

I won’t belabor the point further, for it’s the simplest of truths:

People of decency
ought to strive for truth.

But – are there limits? There must be some, right?

The Jewish textual tradition often impresses me with its good sense, which is one of the reasons that I remain drawn to it. One of the most famous examples of a lie, which is not only permitted but actually encouraged, arose from a dispute between the renowned ancient Houses of the Rabbis Hillel and Shammai, which the House of Hillel won (Talmud, Tractate Ketubot 16b-17a):

ืชื ื• ืจื‘ื ืŸ ื›ื™ืฆื“ ืžืจืงื“ื™ืŸ ืœืคื ื™ ื”ื›ืœื” ื‘ื™ืช ืฉืžืื™ ืื•ืžืจื™ื ื›ืœื” ื›ืžื•ืช ืฉื”ื™ื ื•ื‘ื™ืช ื”ืœืœ ืื•ืžืจื™ื ื›ืœื” ื ืื” ื•ื—ืกื•ื“ื” ืืžืจื• ืœื”ืŸ ื‘”ืฉ ืœื‘”ื” ื”ืจื™ ืฉื”ื™ืชื” ื—ื™ื’ืจืช ืื• ืกื•ืžื ืื•ืžืจื™’ ืœื” ื›ืœื” ื ืื” ื•ื—ืกื•ื“ื” ื•ื”ืชื•ืจื” ืืžืจื” (ืฉืžื•ืช ื›ื’) ืžื“ื‘ืจ ืฉืงืจ ืชืจื—ืง ืืžืจื• ืœื”ื ื‘”ื” ืœื‘”ืฉ ืœื“ื‘ืจื™ื›ื ืžื™ ืฉืœืงื— ืžืงื— ืจืข ืžืŸ ื”ืฉื•ืง ื™ืฉื‘ื—ื ื• ื‘ืขื™ื ื™ื• ืื• ื™ื’ื ื ื• ื‘ืขื™ื ื™ื• ื”ื•ื™ ืื•ืžืจ ื™ืฉื‘ื—ื ื• ื‘ืขื™ื ื™ื• ืžื›ืืŸ ืืžืจื• ื—ื›ืžื™ื ืœืขื•ืœื ืชื”ื ื“ืขืชื• ืฉืœ ืื“ื ืžืขื•ืจื‘ืช ืขื ื”ื‘ืจื™ื•ืช Our Rabbis taught: How does one dance before the bride? The House of Shammai say: The bride as she is. And The House of Hillel say: ‘Beautiful and graceful bride’! The House of Shammai said to the House of Hillel: If she was lame or blind, does one say of her: ‘Beautiful and graceful bride’? Whereas the Torah said, ‘Keep thee far from a false matter’ (Ex. 23:7). Said the House of Hillel to the House of Shammai: According to your words, if one has made a bad purchase in the market, should one praise it in his eyes or depreciate it? Surely, one should praise it in his eyes. Therefore, the Sages said: Always should the disposition of man be pleasant with people.

Even more broadly, the Jewish tradition teaches us that we may “modify a statement” for the sake of peace, based upon God’s behavior in the story of Abraham and Sarah. The sage Rashi (1040-1105) picked up on a nuance in these two verses (Gen. 18:13-14):

ื™ื‘. ื•ึทืชึผึดืฆึฐื—ึทืง ืฉื‚ึธืจึธื”, ื‘ึผึฐืงึดืจึฐื‘ึผึธื”ึผ ืœึตืืžึนืจ: ืึทื—ึฒืจึตื™ ื‘ึฐืœึนืชึดื™ ื”ึธื™ึฐืชึธื”-ืœึผึดื™ ืขึถื“ึฐื ึธื”, ื•ึทืื“ึนื ึดื™ ื–ึธืงึตืŸ? 12. And Sarah laughed to herself, saying: ‘After I am withered shall I have pleasure, my husband being old?’
ื™ื’. ื•ึทื™ึผึนืืžึถืจ ื™ึฐื”ื•ึธื”, ืึถืœ-ืึทื‘ึฐืจึธื”ึธื: ืœึธืžึผึธื” ื–ึผึถื” ืฆึธื—ึฒืงึธื” ืฉื‚ึธืจึธื” ืœึตืืžึนืจ, ื”ึทืึทืฃ ืึปืžึฐื ึธื ืึตืœึตื“–ื•ึทืึฒื ึดื™ ื–ึธืงึทื ึฐืชึผึดื™? 13. And the LORD said unto Abraham: ‘Wherefore did Sarah laugh, saying: Shall I of a surety bear a child, old as I am?

Rashi pointed out that when speaking to Abraham, following His promise to Sarah, God changed Sarah’s words so her husband would not know that she had been laughing at his old age. The lesson derived from the distinction between these two verses was also underscored in the Talmud (Tractate Yevamot 65b):

ื•ื”ืจ ืื™ืœืขื ืžืฉื•ื ืจื‘ื™ ืืœืขื–ืจ ื‘ืจ’ ืฉืžืขื•ืŸ ืžื•ืชืจ ืœื• ืœืื“ื ืœืฉื ื•ืช ื‘ื“ื‘ืจ ื”ืฉืœื•ื… ื“ื‘ื™ ืจื‘ื™ ื™ืฉืžืขืืœ ืชื ื ื’ื“ื•ืœ ื”ืฉืœื•ื ืฉืืฃ ื”ืงื“ื•ืฉ ื‘ืจื•ืš ื”ื•ื ืฉื™ื ื” ื‘ื• ื“ืžืขื™ืงืจื ื›ืชื™ื‘ (ื‘ืจืืฉื™ืช ื™ื—) ื•ืื“ื•ื ื™ ื–ืงืŸ ื•ืœื‘ืกื•ืฃ ื›ืชื™ื‘ ื•ืื ื™ ื–ืงื ืชื™: R. Ile’a further stated in the name of R. Eleazar son of R. Simeon: One may modify a statement in the interests of peace… At the School of R. Ishmael it was taught: Great is the cause of peace. Seeing that for its sake even the Holy One, blessed be He, modified a statement; for at first it is written, My husband being old, while afterwards it is written, And I am old.

It seems that the Jewish tradition approaches the ideal of speaking the truth very sensibly. After all, we are only human, and so few of our relationships in this world work out tidily. Telling the truth is an ideal that we should always aim for, and the acceptable exceptions to this rule are only for the sakes of other people. Even then, we ought to be wary, for in my personal experience, the road to hell is truly paved with good intentions.

My Papa was a man of the utmost integrity, but he was also a very practical man. Ultimately, I remember him prioritizing the golden rule above all else.

In my childhood, he was always disappointed in me for my falsehoods and deceptions, but mostly because of how my lack of consideration for others (including him and Mama) reflected upon my character. Suffice it to say that I wasn’t lying for the sake of peace, as the Talmud would have it.

Thinking through this now, I’m not at all sure of the best balance between truth and intention, which I suppose is ultimately a situational matter. Nobody ever said that being a moral person is easy.

I am wondering which of these is at the root of our increasing lack of trust in our leaders and institutions… perhaps a bit of both?

45 thoughts on “Ethical will: Truth”

  1. I can only speak of my own increasing lack of trust, in leadership and many in business/community dealings and from ‘whence’ it stems – 1. How many choose to say one thing one day/something different shortly thereafter, and pretend as if it’s ‘always’ been that way, followed by 2. Only anger, or defamation or shaming/blaming someone else (or the one inquiring, for clarification) instead of answering the question, and 3. How often what is ‘stated’ as what one cares about, routinely, doesn’t get backed up by actions taken – It seems to have become pervasive in many levels of the society I live in – and, thus, I guess for me? “People often get the leaders they deserve” – ๐Ÿ˜€ But then, well, I was raised that a ‘white lie” (Protestant Christian version of an untruth spoken to keep the peace/be kind) was a lie all the same – and yet this was most enforced and all by those who couldn’t bear for anyone to tell them the truth, and those, who were not satisfied with a simple, “Thank you for inviting me for dinner. No, I don’t need seconds” – ah…no….push the issue until I finally had a choice, lie, either through silence or spoken word (what do I care if they think I’m on a diet?, let them think that) INSTEAD of saying, “your beef & cabbage tastes as if the meat is spoiled, is bland, greasy and I can’t eat another portion without risking throwing up, right here…” – LOL

    1. In truth, my skepticism towards all I read and hear only seems to increase with my years, Tamrah. Thanks for sharing your reflection!

      Take good care,

    1. Honestly, I’m into truth – to the extent that I can identify it… I’m no expert, but I don’t know what else I can do in order to find it… ๐Ÿคท๐Ÿปโ€โ™‚๏ธ

  2. I havenโ€™t trusted our (US) election process since 2000. Actually, my distrust probably began in 1980 when we elected an actor. I think most Americans view the President as a figure head. But Trump sure has signed a ton of Executive Orders.
    I so hear you about morality and truth. Problem is most only see one side of a coin and act like the other side doesnโ€™t exist. There are many layers of โ€œtruth.โ€

  3. This is a very good piece of wisdom. The problem with truth is there are so many perspectives that truth gets lost in the proving of rightness!
    I love the idea of an ethical will!

    1. Thank you for the kind response ๐Ÿ™‚

      I learned about the concept of an ethical will during my year of mourning for my father, and I also really loved the idea. And (to be honest) since it was originally a Jewish concept, and since I am a dorky Jew, I loved the idea even more.

      So when I created my blog here on WordPress, I knew that one of the sections would be ‘Ethical Will’ – I don’t expect to die any time soon (although, of course, we never know…), but I want to get my values and thoughts down for our daughter and any future children than we may have –

      And, as they say, there’s no time like the present!

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