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Holy Lies: Rabbi Grimberg's Kol Nidre Sermon, October 11, 2016

02/11/2016 01:33:55 PM


Kol Nidre

5777 / 2016

Holy Lies


Part I

When the Holy One was about to create Adam, an argument broke out in heaven: “Is it a good idea to create a human being or rather four other entities:Righteousness, Love, Peace and Truth?” Righteousness said, “Let him be created, because he will do acts of love and kindness.” Love chimed in and added: “Let him be created, because he will do acts of Love.” However, Peace said, “Let him not be created, because he will be all strife.” Truth agreed and added: “Let him not be created, because all of him will be falsehood.” What did the Holy One do? He took truth and cast it to the ground. The ministering angels cried out to the Holy One:

And God created Adam

This Midrash, or commentary on the Torah as a product of rabbinic creativity, addresses a crucial issue in the creation of human beings.Adam is created only after truth is cast out and thrown to the ground. It is the absence of truth that allows human beings to come into the world. As if Rabbis cry out to us over the centuries repeating an old, difficult wisdom often spoken in whispers:

The short time we have together this evening, I would like to explore the nature of dishonesty and what our tradition, contemporary research and literature can teach us about this old, unwelcome companion, which, by the virtue of its exile from the heavenly realm, made its place here on earth among us. Not only did it make its way to earth, but I might say that, at times, it is our good friend and loyal companion.

Our Machzor dedicated pages and pages on confessions:

Part 2

Observing the natural world around us, deception is part of being:  As much as we may abhor it, deception comes naturally to all living things.  Birds do it by feigning injury to lead hungry predators away from nesting young. Spider crabs do it through disguise: adorning themselves with strips of kelp and other debris to escape their enemies. Nature amply rewards successful deceivers by allowing them to survive long enough to mate and reproduce. So it may come as no surprise to learn that human beings tell some form of untruth roughly every five minutes, according to psychologist Gerald Jellison of the University of South California. We often use deception for exactly the same reasons: to save our own skins or to get something we can’t get by other means.

Children are involved in play and pretending. Psychologists tell us that becoming someone they are not is important for their cognitive and social development.

Some feel that lies should never be told under any circumstances. This is called an absolutist position, but the world’s literarily masters point out that it can be problematic.

“A truth that’s told with bad intent,

Beats all the lies you can invent.” (William Blake)

“Tis not enough your counsel still be true;

Blunt truth more mischief than nice falsehoods do.” (Alexander Pope)

“The truth is an awful weapon of aggression. It is possible to lie, and even to murder, with the truth.” (Alfred Adler)

There is a cultural sensibility to what one considers permissible in the world of deception and lies. Growing up in the Soviet Union, it was clear that family and friendships were held in great regard, but our relationship to the state was placed in another category. It was not uncommon to find people skipping work to stand in the endless food lines to buy necessary basics. We would wink to each other and say, “They (the government) pretend like they are paying us and we pretend that we are working.”

Once we arrived to North America, my grandmother, who was a clear thinker and was not much for subtleties, would say, “it was easy to spot a gunif in Kiev where the lie lived, but here in America it is much harder. Why do the financial papers hold important information in tiny print, and why does the food on the box look nothing like the food inside the box? Gunifs in America.”

The age of the grandparent: how come they were all at least few years younger than stated on their long lost original Russian or Polish birth certificate while their exact gifilte recipe survived?

Or the multicultural debate at the fish market. Or while; shopping in the shuk in Jerusalem: Come into the store, I have a present for you, you are my best friend…

Part 3

According to Professor Dan Ariely from Duke University; no country’s inhabitants lies more or less then another’s and men do not lie more or less than women.

So, if we make an assumption that nice, mostly honest people lie, then what is the mechanism of that act?What allows us to manage our sanity and continue with our well-meaning lives while living with this duality?

Dr. Ariely suggests that we can do this because of the justification factor surrounding the lie. He calls

As an experiment Dr. Ariely has a broken vending machine, so when you put your money to get something out, it gives you the money back and gives you your chocolate bar. On the front of the machine there is a phone number that tells you to call if the machine if broken. How many times do you think people go back to the machine before they call and report its malfunction? About 5 times.

Then the participants in the experiment reported on what moved them to return to the machine several times: People reported that, several years ago, in another city, there was another machine that took their money but did not give them their chocolate bar.

Justification is a mechanism that allows us to tell a lie and go on living.

Part 4

 But this is a Jewish night of the year. With Judaism so akin to the human psychology, the sharp observer of human behavior. So, what does our tradition say about lying?

Judaism does not encourage lying but it is tolerant to lies in some situations:

  1. To preserve peace: 

In Gen. 18:12, Sarah is promised a child by the three angels, three visitors, but she does not believe and says, “Adoni Zaken (my husband is too old).” God’s responds to Abraham, “Why did Sarah say she is too old, ‘Ani Zakanti’? Is anything beyond Me?” 11th century commentator Rashi sees discrepancy in the text. Why did God change Sarah’s words from “My husband is too old,” to “I am too old.” It’s because, Rashi concludes, that even God changes the truth for Shalom Bait (Peace of the House).

  1. For a charitable cause:

Rabbi Akiba promised to buy Kalah Rabbati Gomorrah. R. Tafron real estate properties, but instead used the money to build schools. When Rabbi Tafron asks, “where is my profit and my land?” Rabbi Akiba takes him to see children studying Torah and Jewish tradition. Rabbi Akiba confronts Rabbi Tafron, stating that wealth will give you nothing in comparison to the eternal promise of our children and their Jewish future. “This is your best investment….”

  1. To save from embarrassment or to avoid hurting someone’s feelings:

There was a debate between the houses of Hillel and Shamai (between the first century BCE and the first century CE), two schools of thought about whether or not you should tell the truth at any cost or not. For example, must one compliment the bride on her wedding day? “How lovely she is…how beautiful she is…” But what if she is not? House of Hillel says, “Every bride is beautiful and lovely on her wedding day!!!”

But Rabbis also caution that if you lie too often, it can become a habit and that can be dangerous even if it is for a great cause.

Babylonian Talmud brings us a story about Rabbi Zera who was constantly tormented by his wife. When he asked her to prepare him some lentils, she would prepare peas. When he asked for peas, she would prepare lentils. When Chiya, Rav’s son, grew up, he reversed his father’s request. Once, Rav said to Chiya, “Your mother improved.” Rabbi Chiya replied: “It is I who reversed our requests to her.” Rab remarked to his son, “Your own offspring teaches you reason, however, you should not continue to do so, for it says in Jeremiah 9:4 ‘They have taught their tongue to speak lies.’”
A few years ago, after 28 years at MIT, the Dean of Admissions had to step down. Over the years she misrepresented her …. Educational credentials. She did not hold a doctorate degree nor had she graduated from the prestigious University she claimed on her resume.

In her interview she reported: “When I was introduced publicly as Dr., I did not correct anyone. I was the same person with or without the title.” (Emet Me Erezth Tizmah) Psalm 85:12 “Truth springs up from the earth”

Our bodies and brains adjust to the lie and do not register the danger.

Part 5

“You know Olenka. You have been sad long enough. You must meet people, you are a wonderful woman.”

“I cannot,” she responded, “the love we knew was not to be repeated. “

“You do not have to repeat your love, but I want you to meet someone. After all, your beloved husband was not a saint either. It was I who placed an additional lock on his office door, so he could bring women in to his office after work hours.”

What followed for Olenka was depression, tears, questions: another type of grief.Something erupted then as the truth sprung up from the earth. (Emet Me Erezth Tizmah)

A year or so later, she met a lovely man, also a widower, and shared a happy decade in that relationship.

In the opening Midrash, the role of God is to console the angels: the Truth is exiled only temporarily.Eventually truth will triumph. Psalms 85:12: Justice and peace kiss. The angels are consoled.

(Emet Me Erezth Tizmah) Psalm 85:12 “Truth springs up from the earth”  These are the words from the opening midrash of the creation of a human being. In order to break the tie between Righteousness and Love and Peace and Truth. It is Truth that is exiled, but only temporarily. Eventually it will resurface, like a weed that has been buried deep in the ground for good, you thought, but eventually it becomes visible in a new place where you did not expect it. 

The night of Kol Nidre is not a night of comfort. It is a night of quiet wrestling with our conscience in which is held our sacred lies and Holy secrets.There are no easy answers; there are only difficult questions: when, how, and for what purpose? We will stray away from the truth, knowing that eventually it surfaces.

I hope for two things at this time of the year: That we are capable of forgiving those who have been less than honest with us and that we may forgive ourselves for missing the same mark.

Tue, 3 August 2021 25 Av 5781