The Truth About Lies – Part II* – Parshat Lech Lecha
There is a popular saying: "Never meet your idols." Too often you find out that they don’t live up to your expectations of them. When you put them on a pedestal, very often you de-humanize them and in fact take away from their greatness. They are quite fallible and, well, human. The greater they are, the greater the disappointment. What we expect from them is to be metahumans. Is that asking too much? They, too, are humans yet they showed greater inner strength than I.
Just imagine, then, when one of those idols is our forefather, Avraham, and he lies. No, I have not met him physically. But I meet him every year at the same time when we read this week's parsha, Parshat Lech Lecha. We find him escaping from the famine in Canaan and making his way to Egypt. When he gets there, fearing for his life, he asks his wife, Sarah, to join him in a lie about how they are related. "Please say you are my sister," he asks of her.1 It is comforting to know that I am not alone in struggling to understand this behavior. Many rabbis have tried to understand and make sense of this. Some have said that it wasn’t really a lie because she was a half-sister. Other rabbis, most notably, the Ramban, take Avraham to task for putting his wife in harm's way and not trusting that God will help them out. They are all struggling with the fact that he didn’t tell the truth. Interestingly, God helped Avraham by bringing a plague on Paroh even though Paroh seemed to be an innocent bystander. Does that mean that God approved of Avraham's actions, or was He just watching out for Paroh's well-being or was He simply trying to prevent further harm?
So do we lie? As in Part I*, I have not yet found a modus operandi for when it's okay to lie, when it's necessary and when it's not okay, though the latter of the three has some easy guidelines. To lie in order to harm another person, for instance, whether for your own betterment or not, may be a basic guideline of when it is not good to lie…usually. Although making a case for lying to save your own life may also seem rather straightforward…or is it?
That helps me understand that life isn’t so easy. Situations can be complicated. And, to complicate this matter even more, we find that the truth can become a lie while a lie can become a truth. So, explains Dr. Viktor Frankl:
One can lie with truth and, on the other hand, tell the truth with lie—even make something true by a lie. An example familiar to every doctor can serve to illustrate this. Suppose we take a patient’s blood pressure and find it slightly high. The patient asks us to tell him the reading. But if we do, he will be so alarmed that his blood pressure will rise, will actually go higher than it already is. If, however, we do not tell the truth but give him a lower figure than the true reading, we will reassure him and his blood pressure will actually drop—so that in the end our sham lie (not white lie) will be an exact statement.2
Some readers may remember when I wrote about suffering a heart attack almost 3 years ago. I never told my mother, 89 years old at the time, hiding the fact from her and lying about where I was going when I needed a checkup or an overnight stay in the hospital for observation.
How do I make sense out of lying? What, in fact, is the truth about lies?
My idol lied. How do I internalize that?
For now, I will continue to struggle. I am pretty sure that there are no hard and fast guidelines for this. I will continue to learn from my idols about the complexity of life at times and how to wiggle through some of those times.
I would like to hear your thoughts on this perplexing issue as I continue to struggle with this.
In the meanwhile let us be aware of the issue and learn from our own behavior and its consequences.
*part I can be found at this link: http://bit.ly/shemot78
Have A Great Shabbat!