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):

מִדְּבַר-שֶׁקֶר, תִּרְחָק; וְנָקִי וְצַדִּיק אַל-תַּהֲרֹג, כִּי לֹא-אַצְדִּיק רָשָׁע. 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):

שְׂפַת-אֱמֶת, תִּכּוֹן לָעַד; וְעַד-אַרְגִּיעָה, לְשׁוֹן שָׁקֶר. 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):

… ור”ל אמר תיו סוף חותמו של הקב”ה דאמר רבי חנינא חותמו של הקב”ה אמת אמר ר’ שמואל בר נחמני אלו בני אדם שקיימו את התור’ כולה מאלף ועד תיו… … 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):

תנו רבנן כיצד מרקדין לפני הכלה בית שמאי אומרים כלה כמות שהיא ובית הלל אומרים כלה נאה וחסודה אמרו להן ב”ש לב”ה הרי שהיתה חיגרת או סומא אומרי’ לה כלה נאה וחסודה והתורה אמרה (שמות כג) מדבר שקר תרחק אמרו להם ב”ה לב”ש לדבריכם מי שלקח מקח רע מן השוק ישבחנו בעיניו או יגננו בעיניו הוי אומר ישבחנו בעיניו מכאן אמרו חכמים לעולם תהא דעתו של אדם מעורבת עם הבריות 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):

יב. וַתִּצְחַק שָׂרָה, בְּקִרְבָּהּ לֵאמֹר: אַחֲרֵי בְלֹתִי הָיְתָה-לִּי עֶדְנָה, וַאדֹנִי זָקֵן? 12. And Sarah laughed to herself, saying: ‘After I am withered shall I have pleasure, my husband being old?’
יג. וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה, אֶל-אַבְרָהָם: לָמָּה זֶּה צָחֲקָה שָׂרָה לֵאמֹר, הַאַף אֻמְנָם אֵלֵד–וַאֲנִי זָקַנְתִּי? 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):

וא”ר אילעא משום רבי אלעזר בר’ שמעון מותר לו לאדם לשנות בדבר השלום… דבי רבי ישמעאל תנא גדול השלום שאף הקדוש ברוך הוא שינה בו דמעיקרא כתיב (בראשית יח) ואדוני זקן ולבסוף כתיב ואני זקנתי: 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?

Ethical will: Listening

We find ourselves on the eve of the 2020 U.S. Presidential election, and voices across the world on both ends of the political spectrum are declaring that all we know as humankind will come to a devastating end if their preferred candidates don’t win.

What befuddles me is that I personally know well-intentioned and well-educated people with diametrically opposed political views, equally certain that the other side is utterly misguided (at best). The people I am referring to are my close friends, family, and mentors; they are among the most upstanding human beings that I have known. How can one side’s assessment be entirely wrong and the other side be right? How can they all be so sure of themselves?

Worse, both here in Israel and in the USA where my mother and brother still reside, it feels to me as though nobody has any interest in listening to those with whom they disagree politically.

And, regardless of who wins this election, I can’t imagine any scenario in which people on opposite sides of the aisle start heeding one another’s concerns.

I have truly never felt so disheartened.


I considered expressing my sentiments in a poem or a blog post, but instead I’ve decided to add a page to this ethical will of mine. This feels to me a productive use of my anxious energies.

While I follow U.S. politics very closely, having lived in Washington D.C. for three years after earning my graduate degree in public policy, I do not believe that I have anything valuable to contribute to the political discourse. Also, given the political climate, making any such attempt seems pointless, and I’m disinclined to churn out words simply for the sake of producing content.

Therefore, taking a 30,000 foot view, as they say, I would like to focus instead on my perspective on the root cause of the breakdown in our national and international discourses…

What follows is my personal attempt at lemonade:


In Jewish tradition, Moses was the greatest of our prophets, meaning that his relationship with God was closer than any other’s. Deuteronomy 34:10 reads:

וְלֹא-קָם נָבִיא עוֹד בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל, כְּמֹשֶׁה, אֲשֶׁר יְדָעוֹ יְהוָה, פָּנִים אֶל-פָּנִים. And there hath not arisen a prophet since in Israel like unto Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face;

Famously, Moses protested to God that he was not fit to be His prophet. Why not? Because, as Moses himself put it, his lips were uncircumcised (Deut. 6:30):

וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה: הֵן אֲנִי, עֲרַל שְׂפָתַיִם, וְאֵיךְ, יִשְׁמַע אֵלַי פַּרְעֹה. And Moses said before the LORD: ‘Behold, I am of uncircumcised lips, and how shall Pharaoh hearken unto me?’

‘Uncircumcised lips’ has been interpreted in a number of ways throughout the centuries, but, most fundamentally, it meant that Moses could not speak well. Despite this (and some suggest: because of this), he heard God’s voice more clearly than anyone in history.

This may be contrasted with the prophet Jeremiah’s criticism of the ancient Israelites (Jer. 6:10):

עַל-מִי אֲדַבְּרָה וְאָעִידָה, וְיִשְׁמָעוּ–הִנֵּה עֲרֵלָה אָזְנָם, וְלֹא יוּכְלוּ לְהַקְשִׁיב; הִנֵּה דְבַר-יְהוָה, הָיָה לָהֶם לְחֶרְפָּה–לֹא יַחְפְּצוּ-בוֹ. To whom shall I speak and give warning, that they may hear? Behold, their ear is uncircumcised, and they cannot attend; behold, the word of the LORD is become unto them a reproach, they have no delight in it.

In fact, this theme of the Israelites not heeding God and His prophets went all the way back to the start of Moses’s own endeavor to serve as God’s prophet. In this week’s Torah reading (Exodus 6:12), Va’eira, Moses complained as follows:

וַיְדַבֵּר מֹשֶׁה, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה לֵאמֹר: הֵן בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, לֹא-שָׁמְעוּ אֵלַי, וְאֵיךְ יִשְׁמָעֵנִי פַרְעֹה, וַאֲנִי עֲרַל שְׂפָתָיִם. And Moses spoke before the LORD, saying: ‘Behold, the children of Israel have not hearkened unto me; how then shall Pharaoh hear me, who am of uncircumcised lips?’

Here, again, we see Moses’ concern regarding his ‘uncircumcised lips’, but in Exodus this greatest of all prophets is underscoring something beyond his own human limitations: Moses is highlighting the Israelites’ failure to heed him.

The Sefat Emet (Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, Poland, 1847 – 1905) deftly tied these two strings of thought together, and the renowned modern-day Torah scholar Aviva Zornberg (1944-) explicates the Chassidic Rebbe‘s teaching for us as follows:

Moses refers to his lips as ‘uncircumcised’ because “Speech… normally creates listeners… it is the listener who creates the act of speech… As long as there is no one to listen to God’s word, language impotently stutters” (The Particulars of Rapture, p. 84).

Simply, if we truly hearken to one another, we will find ourselves able to express ourselves more eloquently; and I have been finding this to be particularly true during children’s formative years:

The more we make a sincere effort to listen to our daughters and sons, the more articulate they will become.

Ethical will: Impartiality

Judgmentalism has always come easily to me.

-Me, ‘The Skeptic’s Kaddish 45’, May 30, 2019

During my kaddish journey following Papa’s death, I struggled with being judgmental of myself. In fact, this was one of the primary impetuses behind that yearlong writing project… Frankly, I had been feeling FAKE by going through the motions of communal mourning rituals with my religious community, while lacking faith in a personal Higher Power. I knew that that Papa would never have wanted that, nor respected it, and I couldn’t stand it either… so I began to share my truth.

It has been my experience that those of us who are most judgmental of ourselves also tend to be judgmental of others. A particular acquaintance of mine struggles with this more than anyone else I’ve known, and while many of the sentiments that he articulates are off-putting to me, my own inclination towards stinging judgmentalism permits me to empathize with and pity him. In his brutal judgments of others, I hear his impossible expectations of himself. His harsh judgmentalism puts my own into perspective.

The funny thing about [my] judgmentalism is that there’s always somebody for me to judge.

When I was more committed to Jewish tradition as an expression of God’s will, when I was praying three times daily and very careful never to eat any food that wasn’t certified kosher, when I felt more certain of my faith… I found myself having to withhold many a comment about those who were less observant.

On the other hand, now that my personal commitment to daily religious observance has slipped, now that I have strongly embraced my skepticism and doubts, now that I see tradition as almost entirely an expression of human needs and experiences… I find myself judging those who believe in Something that they cannot prove.

This reminds me of a popular adage I’ve oft heard in Jewish educational circles:

Anyone to my right is a zealot; anyone to my left is a heretic.


Now, the Torah, as I’ve written elsewhere, is a legal tradition at its core. The ancient Israelites lived their lives according to what they believed to be God’s Word, and they established judicial courts accordingly to adjudicate the inevitable disputes.

Somewhat as an aside, it was Moses‘ father-in-law Jethro, a non-Israelite, who first suggested the establishment of a hierarchical court system, rather than leaving Moses to shoulder the burden of adjudication on his own. Notably, according to Jewish doctrine, only Jews are obligated to live their lives according to God’s Torah, but gentiles are still considered obligated to abide by the seven Noahide laws, one of which is: the establishment of courts of justice.

It’s clear that judgment has an important place in Judaism. Indeed, Deuteronomy 16:19-20 is written as follows:

לֹא־תַטֶּ֣ה מִשְׁפָּ֔ט לֹ֥א תַכִּ֖יר פָּנִ֑ים וְלֹא־תִקַּ֣ח שֹׁ֔חַד כִּ֣י הַשֹּׁ֗חַד יְעַוֵּר֙ עֵינֵ֣י חֲכָמִ֔ים וִֽיסַלֵּ֖ף דִּבְרֵ֥י צַדִּיקִֽם׃ You shall not judge unfairly: you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just.
צֶ֥דֶק צֶ֖דֶק תִּרְדֹּ֑ף לְמַ֤עַן תִּֽחְיֶה֙ וְיָרַשְׁתָּ֣ אֶת־הָאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ נֹתֵ֥ן לָֽךְ׃ Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the LORD your God is giving you.

These two verses, I find, are very instructive for us. For me, they are something to aspire to.

On the one hand, verse 20 makes it clear that we Jews ought to pursue justice. This is part and parcel of Torah. Through this lens, I am able to recognize and appreciate that judgmentalism isn’t inherently bad, although it certainly may be painful for me.

Verse 19 serves to clarify the ideal of judgment for me. Yes, we must pursue justice, but how does one do so? The answer: ‘you shall show no partiality’.

In other words, yes, we are creatures of judgment, and, yes, this may be not only natural but correct. However, we must always recognize and acknowledge our biases, and these biases are more than likely to shift over time, further highlighting their subjectiveness. So we must, of necessity, ask ourselves, “How would I describe my perspective? Who do I perceive to be different than myself and in what ways? And- how am I intuitively inclined to regard them?”


On a personal note, I am finding that the struggle of being judgmental has not gotten any easier for me emotionally over the years. However, the more I have been able to recognize and acknowledge my own mistakes and failures, the more I find myself capable of understanding the human failings of others.

Ethical will: Curiosity and mistakes

In Pirkei Avot (Chapters of the Fathers) 2:6, the great Hillel is quoted as follows:

הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, אֵין בּוּר יְרֵא חֵטְא, וְלֹא עַם הָאָרֶץ חָסִיד, וְלֹא הַבַּיְשָׁן לָמֵד, וְלֹא הַקַּפְּדָן מְלַמֵּד, וְלֹא כָל הַמַּרְבֶּה בִסְחוֹרָה מַחְכִּים. וּבְמָקוֹם שֶׁאֵין אֲנָשִׁים, הִשְׁתַּדֵּל לִהְיוֹת אִישׁ: He used to say: A brute is not sin-fearing, nor is an ignorant person pious; nor can a timid person learn, nor can an impatient person teach; nor will someone who engages too much in business become wise. And in a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.

The most famous section of that Mishnah is surely the last line:

In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.

However, for my purposes right now, I’ll focus on the line I highlighted:

Nor can a timid person learn.

I suppose that for the purposes of an ethical will I could simply stop here because this concept is so very uncomplicated, but I have what to say about Papa in this context.

* * *

For some reason, I don’t have many lucid memories of my childhood, as some do. My wife, for example, has a fantastic memory, and she remembers events from her early years in fairly high resolution. Still, hazy recollections of mine do remain, and snippets have increasingly been coming back over these last two years.

I’ve already mentioned that Papa had a computer at home for as long as I can remember. In the 80’s it was definitely not the norm to have a PC, although I don’t think I knew that as a child. For me, playing games on a computer was normal.

One of my early, hazy memories of Papa goes as follows:

For some reason or another we went together to a computer store. Most likely, he had to purchase some piece of equipment or software for himself, and I just happened to be along for the ride. At the store, there were some computers on display for customers to use, and I was curious so I went over to look at one of the machines and gingerly slid the mouse around to see the cursor move. I wanted to play with it further but was afraid that something might go wrong.

“Can I try it? I’m afraid to mess it up.”
“You should never be afraid of pushing buttons on a computer – there is nothing you can do to one of these machines that you won’t be able to undo. If you fear them, you will never learn to use them. Only by trial and error can you gain knowledge.”

* * *

My five-year-old daughter knows the answer to the following question before she opens her mouth because we’ve had this very same exchange countless times. Still, she continues to ask me:

Abba’chka, I made a mistake, but that’s okay, right?
Yes, Dear, making mistakes is a good thing.
Why?
(she always asks this with such eager anticipation)
Because that’s the only way to learn. If you fear making mistakes, it will be very, very difficult for you to to discover more about the world around you.

* * *

Lastly, for now, I think it’s also important to underscore that we best serve ourselves in this world by approaching other human beings with genuine curiosity, rather than avoiding those who hold views that differ from our own.

People too have buttons, and one such button is the human inclination to talk about one’s self. If we approach others with a sincere desire for understanding, and if we are careful to use open-ended questions (rather than questions that only require short, simple answers), most people will be all too happy to respond.

Human beings, of course, are not computers… but kindness is the key.

Papa was genuinely curious to understand the people he differed with. I remember him proactively engaging ultra-Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem with questions while they were protesting against traffic on the Sabbath, querying animal rights activists in Tel Aviv as they campaigned for veganism…

Me, ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ 34, Mar. 10, 2019

Chapter next

I had thoughts of what I might choose to write about after completing my year of mourning, but all of them felt cheap and empty when the time came. How could I switch to any other subject after dedicating a year to Papa?

On the other hand, I couldn’t continue my project as if my year of mourning hadn’t ended. There’s a point at which passion descends into obsession; a point at which contributing to conversation becomes whoring for attention.

* * *

Throughout my kaddish year, I received support that was beyond precious from friends and family members. My confidence in the validity of my Jewish voice was bolstered by the feedback of rabbis and scholars whom I admire; and its potential value even to non-religious individuals was brought home to me by dear ones, themselves unengaged in Jewish prayer or study.

That year, after I’d published my 27th blog post, my brother Eli inadvertently paid me the greatest of compliments:

“reading your posts also reminds me of dad”
“really? wow. thank you for telling me that.”

Many people suggested that I publish the ‘Skeptic’s kaddish’ as a book, and while I’ve been giving this serious consideration, it… I feel…

unready.

Firstly, I don’t feel done with this journey, even with the close of the first chapter. Secondly, my personal kaddish odyssey assumed the format of a blog rather naturally, with all the advantages and disadvantages that offers. How would one include embedded YouTube videos and lists of hypertext in a bound volume, I wonder?

Lastly, my vision for a book includes a section that I’ve only begun working on – an ethical will.

* * *

My friends and family offered their feedback, each from her/his own perspective. Among them, my dear friend Yael offered me commentary through the lens of her professional chaplaincy work with dying clients and their loved ones.

I still recall a pivotal conversation of ours, following that same 27th blog post in which I’d written:

… I am leaving behind something special for future generations in this kaddish series. Somehow, I had not initially considered that… Still, I do like the idea of this as a family memoir…

“Do you know what an ethical will is?”
“Nope; what is it?”

Following her thorough explanation, I felt the need to clarify something I thought she’d said:

“Okay; I understand that the ethical will is used universally by chaplains of all faiths, but did I hear you say that this was originally a Jewish thing?”
“Absolutely. It has its roots in the Torah – read about it.”

So I did.

* * *

There is much for me to write, and not all of it will be written. There are things I won’t get to, and there are things I won’t touch.

However, in honor of my Papa, I intend to follow this basic guiding principle: to write honestly and ethically. That’s not to say that I myself am an especially ethical man, but Papa may have been the most genuine and honorable man that I have ever met.