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My Problem


Matot (Numbers 30:2-32:42 )

by Rabbi Stephen Baars

When my son was young we took a trip together. It was before 9/11 and airport security was going through the standard questions when the officer got to: "Did anyone give you anything to take?"

I answered in the affirmative, but I didn't expect what would happen next.

Somehow I had created a small crisis. The officer was clearly nervous as she typed into her computer.

I asked, "Is there something wrong?"

Agitated, she answered, "Yes! I never got that answer before and I don't have the protocol for it."

I asked her, "Do you think that all the other people are telling the truth, or lying?"

"Lying." She answered.

This week's parsha states that a person, "…must not profane their word...." (Numbers 30:3). Rav Yaacov Weinberg zt"l points out that the implication of this line is that words are naturally holy, therefore do not make them un-holy or profane.

What does it mean that words are holy?

Words are the medium by which we connect our inside world with the outer one, and alternatively, by which we absorb the outside world into our inner. A word is not just a sound and symbol, it's far more noble than that, it has special powers to impart value.

When someone shouts abuse, or gives a compliment it imprints their feelings into ours. It's the way we connect with other human beings in the most profound of ways. It's easy to tell someone to ignore the bully, but the reality is, as we all experience, the emotions tied to a word travels into our souls, whether cruel or benevolent.

The Torah's point here is incredible, it's not just words of truth that penetrate, it's words spoken by a truthful person that penetrate.

Shakespeare proclaimed, "Above all else, to thine own self be true." The Jewish concept is rather different, being true to oneself is only possible IF to others you are true.

If you lie, it's not simply that you have said something that is untrue. If that were the case, then a lie is a crime to be valued relative to the weight of the lie. Like a thief who steals $1 is not as bad as one who steals $1m. But this is not how life works, and it's why Judaism has no place for so called, "white lies."

When you lie, it is much worse than the value of the untruth, you have made yourself a liar.

When the Torah instructs us to not profane our words, it is telling us there is something special about that which proceeds from our mouths. Not living up to what you say, is not just a question of breaking your word, but has a far more meaningful impact.

"The tongue is the pen of the heart." Bachya Ibn Pekudah (11th century Spanish Rabbi)

Animals don't speak because their communication only serves the purpose of survival. For that you don't need words. For if speech were a product of evolution then we would expect at least one other species to talk. After all, communication is one of the easiest forms of technology. If we can get machines to talk, why can't animals?

Man's unique ability above animals to share sublime and exoteric thoughts, insights and inner turmoil in such clear and potent ways cannot be explained through evolution, it's rather a precious gift from The Almighty.

The answer is that nothing else needs to connect to another being like a person does. Words don't just tell you what the temperature is outside, it tells you the pain inside. But it does more than that, you can feel the pain inside.

Therefore the liar has broken a vital link with the world around him. He has destroyed (profaned) the value of his speech, the very tool needed to connect with other people.

Yes, the Torah does allow for a person to lie under certain circumstances, it is true. But even with that, it's a permission that should rarely be invoked. Because even when you lie, even for the right reason, even though the Torah says you can, you have still made yourself into a liar. It is for this reason that Yaakov did his best to make his words the most true he could. (Genesis 28:19 Rashi)

Since people are so loath to cause themselves harm, after all we try to be as healthy as we can. Why then do we cause such damage to the very thing that is important to us all, our human connection.

I certainly commend a smoker who gives up their habit, or at the least not smoke in front of their progeny. So why don't parents commit to only the truth in the same way, especially in front of their children?

Therefore, why do people lie?

This is my problem.

* * *


Question 1: Think of a time when you lied in order to get ahead. If you could, would you prefer to be a person that never lied, or to remain as you are? Why?

Question 2: Have you ever lied to someone very close to you and harmed that relationship?

Question 3: Look back over your life; have you ever lied to yourself?


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