Parshas Chayei Sarah recounts the death of Sarah and the betrothal of Rachel to Yitzhak. Largely though, it is a parsha of dialogue – of tellings and retellings. If brevity is the soul of the Torah, why are so many words spent recounting words written only pages before? Avraham gives instructions to his servant, Eliezer, telling him to go to the land of his birth, Ur, in order that he might find a wife for his son, Yitzhak. His instructions are laid out explicitly. Yet, Eliezer repeats these instructions word-for-word (albiet with a few changes) as he discusses the potential betrothel with Rachel’s brother, Laban. Why does the Torah go to such lengths to provide transcripts for these discussions? What do the subtle changes Eliezer makes demonstrate to us about the nature of truth?
Judaism tells us that truth is at the beginning, middle, and end of existence – the Hebrew word for truth – אמת – contains the first, middle, and last letter in the Hebrew alphabet. We add to our morning prayer the following supplication, asking Gd that we may “always admit the truth and speak truth in our hearts.” The Talmud says that Gd allowed Jerusalem to be destroyed because of a lack of honest men.1
Yet, we constantly encounter times when “truth,” in its explicit sense, is bent in the Torah. We see this when Eliezer meets Rachel and gives her gifts of jewelry before asking her name. When he recounts the story to Laban, he switches the order of the events and says, first I asked her name and then I bestowed gifts. Other examples appear as well. As Avraham gives Eliezer instructions on finding a wife for Yitzhak, he says, “go to my land and to my kindred (אֶל־אַרְצִ֛י וְאֶל־מוֹלַדְתִּ֖י תֵּלֵ֑ךְ וְלָקַחְתָּ֥ אִשָּׁ֖ה לִבְנִ֥י לְיִצְחָֽק).” Yet when Eliezer recounts these words to Laban, he says, “but you shall go to my father’s house, to my kindred (אֶל־בֵּית־אָבִ֛י תֵּלֵ֖ךְ וְאֶל־מִשְׁפַּחְתִּ֑י),” conveniently replacing the word land with father’s house. Additionally, in last week’s parsha, Gd himself commits a similar act as he recounts Sarah’s words to Avraham. While Sarah, in astonishment at the news that they will have a child, says to Gd, “...my husband is old!” Gd recounts her words to Avraham as “though I (being Sarah, herself) have aged!”2 If truth is so highly valued in the Torah, how can Eliezer, let alone Gd, bend the truth so blatantly?
The reality is that Judaism has a much more nuanced view of truth. In fact, implicitly, judaism refers to three paradaims of truth:
- The paradigm of Good v. Bad
- The paradigm of True v. False
- The ultimate paradigm of Emet (אמת) – wholeness, balance, Truth with a capital ‘T.’
We all, to various degrees, oscilate between the levels of good v. bad and true v. false. The degree to which we allow our ego to skew our perception of reality, categorizing true as what is good for us and vice versa, is the degree to which we lean towards the first. The degree to which we are able to recognize our ego’s influence on our perceptions of reality is the degree to which we are able to transcend to the level of true v. false. Truth on this level does not depend on what is good for us on a personal level, but rather what is just and fair, existing as it is in reality. We desire bad not because it is bad, but rather because we are confused. We delude ourselves into thinking it is the truth – perhaps because it satiates our momentary desires for pleasure or self-righteousness. And since our free will exists in this space between good v. bad and true v. false, in a sense, when we remove our egos entirely, we remove choice as well. We simply exist on the plane of truth. A tzaddik (a truly righteous human being), while embodying many other traits as well, is one who achieves this level of truth. They are able to transcend their ego to such a level that their actions are not determined by what is good for them, but rather what is true. When we reach this level, we remove even the desire to do bad, as it is writtened in Kohelet 12:1 “the years will come about which you will say, I have no desire for them.”
In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Chava exist on this level. They have no egos and thus, only experience the world according to true v. false. Rav Dessler discusses this idea extensively. He writes that Adam, when first created, was meant to exist only in the world of truth and falsehood. While the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil existed, it was external. So too did their yetzer harah (evil inclination, or ego) exist only outside of them – in the form of a snake. The Ramchal writes in Derech Hashem (The Way of Gd) on this, “there were two [possibilities] in the world - the good and the evil, and he (Adam) stood balanced between them...and it was surely fitting for him to choose the good, that his soul should win over his body and his spirit over his materiality; and then he would have been perfected immediately and stayed in his perfection forever.” But these two possibilities that the Ramchal mentions are not good v. bad but rather the paradigm of ego versus the paradigm of truth. They chose the former.
The question then is, from where did Adam and Chava get the desire to eat from the tree? This is where the third paradigm exists – emet – and it was to this level they were drawn. It is a place of insight where truth and falsity weave perfectly together to create harmony, balance, and wholeness. It is the ultimate connection to Gd – to the oneness of the universe. It is the sefira of Tiferet since Tiferet is the perfect blending of Din (strict justice, fairness) and Chesed (loving-kindness, genorosity). Adam and Chava, in that moment, conceptually understood the power of free will. “The woman (Chava) saw that the tree was...desirable for insight.”3 They understood that in order to transcend the level of true v. false meant to lower themselves to the level of good v. bad so that might choose to raise themselves again. Through the exercise of their free will, they hoped to climb higher and thus, closer to Gd – to reach the level of emet.
Gd does not see the world according to true and false, he simply sees. He sees what is and what was and what should be. Thus, he answers with emet when he changes Sarah’s words to preserve shalom beit (peace in the home) between Avraham and Sarah, and from this we learn that is acceptable to lie if its purpose is to maintain love and harmony between a husband and wife. We are taught in the Torah that we can lie about the beauty of a bride even if it is less than true.4 These are only a few in a list of appropriate instances where emet differentiates itself from truth. It is interesting to note that reaching both the levels of emet and good v. bad rely on our unique capacity to use our free will as human beings. Adam and Chava understood this quite well. When we use our intellect and emotions only for our own sake, we lower ourselves from seeing true v. false to only good v. bad. When we use our intellect and emotions for the sake of others, and when we do so wisely and with emotional intelligence, we rise to the level of emet. Eliezer does this masterfully as he recounts the story to Laban. He switches the order events – telling of how he asked Rachel’s name before he gave her jewelry; he does this for Laban’s sake, not his own. He had no need to ask Rachel’s name to know that she was the right woman – divine clarity was his. Rashi tells us that it was for the sake of remaining relatable to Laban that he changed the order of events.5 In order that Laban might understand the emet of the situation, the momentary truth had to be skewed. Further, Eliezer appeals to the egos of his hosts when he adds “to my father’s house” when recounting Avraham’s instructions. Eleizer knows this match was made in heaven. He’s on the level of emet. He says what is necessary to get them (Laban and Bethuel) to understand.
There is no better example of the difference between truth and emet then with the Jewish laws of lashon harah (speaking badly about others). It is not lashon harah unless it is true (it is still a sin if it not true, but it is more akin to libel).
So what was Eve and Chava’s failure? They greatly underestimated the unbelievable power of ego to draw them into the world of good v. bad. They could not imagine what it actually is to be an emotional, reactive, desiring human being. They took the pill and could not unsee what they saw through their eyes for the first time, and so they ran and “hid from Gd among the trees of the garden.”6 For this reason, we must never underestimate our ability to skew truth in our favor.
This parsha, and the Torah as a whole, delivers the message that it is our challenge to exist not only on the level of truth, but on the level of emet. To do so requires wisdom. We strive to know not only what to say, but when to say it, how to say it, and when not to say it at all. We work to remain mindful so that we may always be concious of the needs of our listener and of our own motivations and intentions. Gd gave us free will and intellect so that we might choose to always speak, not truth, but Truth, with a capital ‘T.’
- Shabbat 119B.
- Bereshit 18:14
- Bereshit 3:6
- Ketubot, 17A
- Rashi Commentary on Bereshit 24:47
- Bereshit 3:8