Posted By The Stash

Our parasha marks a shift from the narrative to the legal, but don’t be fooled, it is not boring. Indeed, these laws of daily living are what should define Menschlichkeit, our great contribution to interpersonal relationships. The true Intelligent Jew is known by their behavior—and this parasha, along with Parashat Kedoshim in Vayikra, are the key elements of appropriate interpersonal behavior that will uplift those touched by it.

The Torah sets the bar very high. We read “keep far away from falsehood” which seems superfluous at first glance. The Torah directly commands us not to be false witnesses, orders judges not to accept lying testimony, and generally forbids people from dealing falsely with each other. What can this verse possibly add? Is this a mitzvah or a suggestion of best practice?

Nechama Leibowitz observes “‘keep far’ implies…meticulous care in refraining from anything that can conceivably savour of untruth, even though it was not obviously dishonest.” What does this mean in practice? A well known example is found in Bereishit when Sarah is told that she will have a child. She laughs inwardly and says that she is old and so is Abraham. But when G-d reports this conversation to Abraham, there is no mention of him being “too old to be a father.” Here we see the principle of “keep far” applied for the sake of shalom bayit, peace between husband and wife. The Gemara applies this principle to all cases when the witnesses are unreliable but the judge cannot prove it. Rather than simply rely on their testimony, the judge throws out the case. In Massechet Shevuot, devoted to vows and court proceedings, we read that a teacher who was owed 100 zuz only had one witness to this fact—and he needed two. He told his student to simply come along and not speak—so he would not violate the law of being a false witness—but his presence would still hopefully serve to ensure victory. The law is simple: when the judge sees that the second witness has nothing to say, they must throw out the case on the basis of “keep far from falsehood.” Jewish law wants only the unadulterated truth.

I shudder when I read this. A few weeks ago I heard a Jewish high school student proudly tell his friends he needed a new smartphone because his Blackberry was “out of date.” He related that he came up with a “quick solve on this one.” When a car backed up in the school parking lot, he arranged for the phone to “fall” under its wheels. He took the shattered phone to his parents and lamented its demise. Presto! A new iPhone! His friend told him how brilliant he was and that he would try this as well.

And this is but the most egregious example of what I see around me. Lying has become a routine matter for all the wrong reasons. Parents routinely lie when their children arrive late for school by inventing excuses such as “doctor’s appointments.” Is it any wonder then that their children routinely lie about everything under the sun, even when they are not under duress. Lying is fast becoming an acceptable behavior. Best Buy reported last year that they were losing millions on electronic equipment that was bought, used, and then returned under the false pretense that “it did not perform to expectations” after the cheaters had saved a great deal of money by using it. In many cases, we are rapidly moving towards a society in which inventive falsehood is honoured and chutzpah is rewarded. The internet has made this behavior much simpler and has added more avenues for falsehood to be deployed.

Our sages called the behavior of “keeping far from falsehood” the “dust of lying.” Dust has a way of accumulating in corners and then, if left untended, slowly covering everything in a room. So it is with the very high standard of “keeping far from falsehood.” If we lower the bar, we soon lower ourselves. Shabbat is surely a day to reflect on this and begin the journey back to truth.

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The Stash
11 Sultana Avenue, Toronto