Mishpatim: Winston Churchill and the ancient rabbis agree

Mishpatim: Winston Churchill and the ancient rabbis agree

After the grand revelation of the Torah at Mount Sinai, this week the Torah portion consists of a long series of laws and rules. Some are much more mundane than the inspirational statements in the Ten Commandments. One simply reads, “Mid’var sheker tirchak – Keep far from a false matter.” (Exodus 23:7)

Isn’t it obvious that we need to be distant from lies?

A comment on truth and falsehood from a Midrash in Yalkut Shimoni Bereshit 3 says the following, “The letters of the word truth [emet in Hebrew] rest on two legs [the letters of that word aleph, mem and tav when printed in Hebrew each touch the line beneath them in two places], while the letters of the word falsehood [sheker in Hebrew] have only one leg [as the letters for that Hebrew word are shin, kof, and resh, which when printed in Hebrew each touches the line underneath them only once.] Truthful actions stand firm [on two legs], actions based on falsehoods do not [they wobble and fall on their single leg].”

The Midrash does not stop at this point for they know there are far too many lies in our world and truth does not always triumph. It continues: “The letters of emet are far apart [they are the first, middle and last letters of the Hebrew alphabet], whereas the letters of sheker are bunched together [they follow each other in the Hebrew alphabet].” The Midrash concludes with something we all know to be accurate: “Truth is hard to attain [since its letters are distant] but falsehood is readily at hand [just as its letters are next to each other].” Or as Winston Churchill said, “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.”

The rabbis were aware that while ultimately truth stands firm, lies are easily proclaimed and all too often believed. Therefore the Torah reminds us not just to avoid them but to keep far from them. That is often hard to do. Think of all the statements made during the recent Presidential campaign. I don’t care which candidate you backed, you know that many of the words in the ads shown on television supporting him were exaggerated if not questionable. We assume that political speech is not always credible. We also know that many people get away with falsehoods and that is, pardon the expression, the gospel truth.

I would like to believe that the world reflects a saying I recall from my childhood that “Cheaters never prosper.” The rabbis of ancient times knew how tempting it is to cheat and to lie, and how easy it is to get away with it. I hope that each of us will be truthful and not be tempted to lie. We should only live in a world where those who are honest do prosper.