Minutes of Torah
Parashat Lekha Lekha introduces us to the first Jewish people Abraham and Sarah. The portion opens with the conclusion of their journey from Mesopotamia to Canaan. Soon after arriving in Canaan, famine compels them to leave their new home and seek sustenance in Egypt.
Prior to their arrival in Egypt, Abraham conceives a plan which requires that Sarah misrepresent the truth of their relationship, namely, that she is not his wife but his sister, ostensibly to protect Abraham from danger. This is one of three such passages in Genesis in which the patriarchs request that their wives lie about the status of their relationship to protect their husbands.
In our story, once they reach their destination, because of her beauty Sarah is taken to Pharaoh. Apparently taken in by the deception, Pharaoh then rewards Abraham with great wealth, there being no other explanation for this behavior. But as a foreshadowing of the Exodus story, God intervenes with plagues to prevent anything from happening to Sarah and they eventually leave Egypt.
What might be jarring to our modern senses, most classical commentaries justify Abraham’s deception — including his exposure of his wife to unwanted sex, as necessary to preserve life under dangerous circumstances. Yet, there were some such as Nachmanides who were not willing to excuse Abraham’s “commission of a great sin”. Or what be more reflective of our contemporary reaction, that of the 15th century Spanish commentator Don Isaac Abravanel:
“What elevated man would choose life with such terrible dishonor, seeking to benefit himself by having his wife commit adultery with others? It would have been more behooving had he chosen death, rather than do such a disgraceful thing.”
And yet, were I to place myself in Abraham’s dilemma, would I act differently? For example, if there is a near-certainty that a despotic ruler will take me or my spouse, and kill the other — what ‘truth’ should I present?
What ‘truth’ does Judaism require?
Jewish tradition generally holds that ‘truth’ does not stand on its own and must be considered in conjunction with other values. Literal, unvarnished truth not only may, but sometimes must, be bent for the sake of promoting shalom; and does not stand in isolation from other core values. Indeed, there is a recognition that the attainment of ‘truth’ is not as simple as one thinks.
Consider the following midrash in which the ministering angels argue whether mankind should be created. The angel representing mercy argues in favor, since humans will perform merciful deeds; the angel representing truth argues against, since humans will be false. God responds by casting Truth into the ground.
In his book, A Passion for Truth, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel understands this midrash as teaching God’s recognition that humans are incapable of understanding pure ‘truth’. We might long to live in a world we characterize as being ‘the black-and-white truth’; but in our world Heschel states, “truth is often gray.”
And perhaps the first step of seeking to acquire ‘truth’ is an awareness of our natural inclination to deceive ourselves, to maintain an illusion that we “have arrived at the truth,” when our humility should compel us to acknowledge that we probably have only begun to comprehend the circumstances of life to fully understand the ‘truth.’
If we can spend a few more moments in evaluating what we initially consider to be ‘truth,’ we can balance it against any other positive values that guide our lives. And it is with that balanced calculus that we are more likely to arrive at a ‘truth’ that is not only consistent with the objective facts that appear before us; but as well the values that we need in order to steer our perspective towards the ‘truth.’ And while applying our values to our understanding of the facts — our ‘truth’, we can also prevent our natural inclination from convincing ourselves of a ‘black-and-white’ truth that we construct solely for protecting us from the anxiety and pain of doubt and uncertainty that accompanies the gray truths that are the most challenging for us to understand.