A White Lie
Mishpatim (Exodus 21-24 )
There are 613 in the Torah, 365 being prohibitive commandments, things that one must refrain from doing. Yet only in one instance of a prohibitive commandment does Jewish wisdom additionally guide us to distance ourselves from the prohibition. “Distance yourself from a false matter”1 Isn’t it necessary to distance ourselves from all negative actions and behaviors? Why only in reference to falsehood does the Torah stipulate that one must stay far away?
The basic understanding of the commentaries is this additional guidance to distance from falsehood is directed to a very specific group of people. In Kedoshim2 we have a very similar commandment of “You shall not lie, one man to his fellow,” which seems to be the main prohibition of lying. However, one must look at the entire section to understand it in context. This section is clearly speaking to the Judges of Israel, “You shall not pervert the judgment” “You shall not accept a bribe.” In fact, the Talmud3 teaches that there are thirteen specific laws of behavior for Judges that are learned out from this verse.
Jewish wisdom is teaching us here a profound lesson. For everyday interactions we have the commandment of “you shall not lie” but that comes with certain exceptions in certain times. For example, the Talmud teaches4 us that one is permitted to change his words for the sake of peace or privacy5. When it comes to judges however, there are no exceptions, they must stay far away from falsehood.
Although the verse of “distance yourself from false matters” is talking to judges, I believe it's also giving us a tip for life. Yes ,there are exceptions to “one shall not lie” but if you know what’s good for you, distance yourself from it as much as possible.
There is an unbelievable story that illustrates this point.6 A man became involved with the wrong crowd and found himself leading a lifestyle that was less than ideal. He seeks out the advice of a wise man, expressing a desire to make positive changes and turn his life around, but at the same time hesitant to accept the yoke of the Torah’s commandments. The wise man tells him that rather than change everything in his life, he should commit to just one mitzvah, to be honest, and refrain from falsehood. The man decides to accept the advice. A few days go by, and he reverts to his regular ways, seeking out less than desirable activities. He then realizes that people will ask him where he was, and he would be put into the position to lie to them. As he firmly kept to the prohibition of not lying, he decided to refrain from visiting shady places. A few days go by, and he is on the verge of stealing, when he realizes, people are going to ask him where he got the stolen item, which will surely lead to a lie. Slowly he comes to the realization that through any engagement in things that weren’t truly beneficial for him, he would be lying to himself. Over time, just the act of accepting upon himself to stay true to his word, totally transformed his life.
The Torah is teaching us to stay away from falsehood, distance ourselves from it, because it can be the one thing that will help us truly overcome and improve every aspect of our lives.
- Shemot 23,7
- Vayikra 19,11
- Shavuot 30b
- Yevamot 65b
- Baba Metzia 13a
- Rav Shmuel Eliezer Halevi Eideles (1555-1631) is known for his great commentary on all of Talmud and on its Haggadic tales, but he usually does not bring down stories. In Sanhedrin 92b however, the Maharsh”a quotes a fascinating story from Sefer Haikarim of Rav Yosef Elbo (1380-1444).