Friday, November 5, 2010

Truth or Consequence

There is no more confounding story in the Torah than that of Yaakov and Esav. In this week's parsha of Toldot we read how our father, Yaakov, at his mother's behest, steals the blessing his father Yitzchak intended to bestow on Esav. Yaakov clearly engaged in act of deception. Yet nowhere does the Torah indicate that it was a sin. On the contrary,Yaakov was the one deserving of the blessing, the son with moral values and the one faithful to the tradition of Avraham. Moreover he was obedient to his mother. In this case we might well argue, the ends justified the means.

We all know times in our lives where we might well argue that the ends justify the means. Lets say we are applying for a job, one we need desperately to provide food for our family and a roof to live under.Yet we also know that unless we lie on the application about something in our past or some personal detail, like our age, we will never get the post. In a case like this we might well argue that our lie is not only justified but mandated by our circumstances. We might say the wrong in this case is in fact a right and ought to be done!

Yet if we follow the story of Yaakov, the deception he engaged in came back to haunt him and confound his life. In the parsha of the week coming, that of Vayetze, Yaakov is deceived by his father-in-law, Lavan, and his intended bride, Rachel, as he wedded her sister Leah in error. And in the following weeks in the parsha of Vayeshev, Yaakov's sons deceive him regarding the sale of Yosef, bringing him Yosef's coat dipped in blood and leading him to believe Yosef was killed by a wild animal. The impact of both deceptions was huge on Yak's life. That they follow the story of the stolen blessings seems meant for us to conclude that the former led to the latter and as a consequence.

If Yaakov's act of stealing the blessings intended to Esav was justified and correct then we might wonder why does he seem to pay such a heavy price in his life with the deceptions played on him?

In coming to terms with this difficult question I want to share with you a story in the Talmud. The Gemara in Sanhedrin (87a) tells of Rav Tuvis who had the excellence of never telling a lie. He shared that once he travelled to a town called Kushta (which in Aramaic means truth). There no one told a falsehood. There also no one died prematurely. Rav Tuvis settled in the town and married a woman from the community.They were blessed to have two sons. One day, he related, a neighbor woman knocked on the door while his wife was washing her hair. In order to protect his wife's privacy he told the neighbor that his wife was not home. Shortly thereafter both sons died. The people of the town came to Rav Tuvis and asked how could this have happened, after all no one died prematurely in their town. He told them the story of his lie. They in turn asked him to leave the town lest he bring tragedy on all of them.

What's amazing about the story is that while Rav Tuvis indeed told a lie, it was a lie justified in halacha and appropriate to protect the modesty of his wife. He did no wrong. Nonetheless his untruth had huge repercussions for him and his family. Why?

The Maharal, in explicating the story makes clear that even when a lie is told for good reason and is the correct thing to say, it does not go without consequence. It leaves its mark. The lie was spoken, that it was the right thing to say does not make it less a lie. And for every act we do, even one that is warranted, if it contains a deception it has an effect.

Yaakov and Rav Tuvis both had good cause to engage in the deception. It was the right thing to do. Yet because it was a lie in fact, while they received no punishment for their act, it nevertheless had impact on their lives. All our actions, even when the ends justify the means, have consequence, even if no punishment.

This week marks the yahrzeit of Rabbi Baruch Ber Leibowitz, one of the Torah giants of a generation ago. During World War One he was compelled to flee Poland where he had his Yeshiva for Russia. After the war he wanted to return to Poland. The guards at the border would only let Polish citizens return. They asked him if he was a citizen. Reb Baruch Ber would not tell a lie even where it was warranted to escape the upheaval in Bolshevik Russia. He told them "I am not a citizen but many of my students are citizens of Poland". The border guards were so impressed with Reb Baruch Ber's honesty that they let him pass.

Clearly Reb Baruch Ber had justification to deceive the border guards. If he had lied it could not have been called a sin. Yet he insisted on telling the truth. He knew that an untruth even justified in speaking leaves both an impression and a consequence.

What does all this mean for you and me? We are not the Tzaddik of Reb Baruch Ber, and we need at times to lie. Indeed at times halacha may want us to lie to protect another or to avoid hurting another. Yet we need to be conscious that all our actions have consequences. And if even those times where we do the right leave an impression, if not a punishment, how much more so the wrong we do and the unjustified leaves a mark in the world and on ourselves and family.

Everything we do has consequence. We need to be aware and intentional!

Shabbat Shalom

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