Dear Rabbi Zahavy
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Dear Rabbi Zahavy

Your talmudic advice column

Tzvee Zahavy received his Ph.D. from Brown University and his rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University. He taught advanced Talmud, halakhah and Jewish law codes, Jewish liturgy, Jewish history, and religious studies at seminaries and at major research universities. He is a prolific author and published numerous articles and books about Judaism and Jewish texts. Visit www.tzvee.com for links. He also worked for 20 years for major banks and hedge funds as an information technology expert. See www.zahavy.com for details.

I thoughtlessly violated a petty and unfair town ordinance. Now I am being fined for it. I’m thinking that I could just pay the fine, or I could go to the town and explain what happened and ask for a reduction in the fine. But nowadays it seems that our highest government officials have no hesitation making things up. Perhaps I can concoct a story to avoid the blame for my actions and avoid the fines. Would that be justified?

Conflicted in Cresskill

Dear Conflicted,

It should be easy for me to say that lying is not the preferred way to go. I’m obliged as a rabbi to represent ethical and moral standards. I should say without hesitation — tell the truth in good faith and ask your town to understand the situation.

But if we look around at all the obvious lying going on in our politics, in our world, it makes you stop and think. Maybe lying is a viable option. Maybe you will be better off if you lie.

And honestly, if you look closely at our Jewish traditions you see dramatic examples of lying recounted proudly in our Bible stories, without qualms. Why then should you opt for the truth?

Let’s critically probe three obvious instances of deceit by our esteemed and venerated patriarchs and ancestors as described in the first book of the Torah and see what we can learn from them.

First, Abraham (in Genesis 22) deceived Isaac outright when he told him that they were going up to a mountain to make a sacrifice. But he did not say to Isaac that he was to be the sacrifice. That was a big lie.

Second, Jacob went to Isaac (in Genesis 27) with his arms covered in hairy skins to claim that he was Esau and to trick his father into giving him the blessing that was supposed to go to his elder brother. That was a big lie.

Third, after selling Joseph into slavery (in Genesis 37), his brothers sent back a bloody coat of many colors to their father, Jacob, who accordingly concluded that a wild animal had killed Joseph. That was a big lie.

What if in each of these instances the parties opted for the high road and told the truth instead of blatantly lying?

In the first instance the Torah recounts this exchange between Isaac and Abraham.

“Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, ‘Father?’”

“‘Yes, my son?’ Abraham replied.”

“‘The fire and wood are here,’ Isaac said, ‘but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?’”

“Abraham answered, ‘God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.’ And the two of them went on together.”

But that was shortly to be revealed as a lie.

What if Abraham had said this to Isaac? “God asked me to sacrifice you, my son. And so that is what we are going to do.” Then the two of them could have gone ahead and proven their faith together. Would that not have been a better option?

In the second instance, the Torah recounts a blatant deceit by Jacob as he approached his aged father to seek the blessing.

Isaac asked, “Who are you, my son?” Jacob said to his father, “I am Esau, your firstborn. I have done as you told me. Now sit up and eat of my game, that your soul may bless me.”

What if Jacob had opted for the truth? He could have said, “I am Jacob. I seek your blessing because birth order alone is not always to best way to determine who should lead our family, who should carry on the mission of our tribe and make us into a great nation. Esau does not embody our values. I do. And anyhow I bought the birthright from him. He sold it to me for some bread and a lentil stew and walked away from it.”

Jacob could have been honest and obtained the blessing on truthful premises. Right? Would that not have been a higher moral route?

In the third instance, The Torah recounts a deceptive cover-up concocted by Jacob’s sons after their crime of kidnapping and selling their brother, Joseph, out of sheer jealousy.

The brothers could have brought back Joseph’s coat of many colors. And when Jacob said, “It is my son’s robe,” what if the brothers confessed and told the truth and said that they acted in anger and resentfulness and sold him as a slave to get rid of him?

Jacob might have said, “You did wrong. Joseph is the visionary, the leader we need to insure the future of our people. Go now. Form a posse. Ride and overtake the Midianites and get Joseph back. Go now and fix your impetuous mistake.”

Would that not have been better — to confess to the crime, not cover it up? How tragic for Israelite history that the brothers sinned and then lied.

We can ask “what if” and indeed “what if” we could rewrite the Torah so that our forefathers chose honest negotiation and forthright diplomacy over lying, misrepresentation, and prevarication?

But the Torah tells us that the great heroic models among our ancestors were imperfectly human. They did not always choose the high road.

And yet here we are. After travelling the twisting paths of our history, we have come out intact and back on a route to success and prosperity.

Today around us in U.S. politics we see way too much lying and deception. Yet we must not lose heart. We should crusade for honesty and for negotiations based on good faith, not deceit.

So, my advice to you is to resist the temptation to lie. Tell your town the truth about your car, and ask them to treat you fairly.

The Dear Rabbi Zahavy column offers mindful advice based on Talmudic reasoning and wisdom. It aspires to be equally open and meaningful to all the varieties and denominations of Judaism. You can find it here usually on the first Friday of the month. Please mail your questions to the Jewish Standard or email them to DearRabbi@jewishmediagroup.com.

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