Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

19 Adar 5761 - March 14, 2001 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Shema Yisrael Torah Network

Opinion & Comment
On Lies and Exaggerations

By Nosson Zeev Grossman

Outgoing Prime Minister Barak has the dubious distinction of being the least respected leader Israel has produced so far. By the time his premiership came to an end, he had lost almost all support even from his friends in the media. Why, asked one journalist, was there such universal condemnation of his behavior, among all his colleagues, who are all only too cynically aware of the realities of political morality? "It would seem", he replies, "that as in every field of ethics, the lies of politicians are also a relative matter," but Barak's "manipulations" of the truth went too far; they left commentators with no choice except outright condemnation.

Perhaps, after all, man by his very nature does strive for the truth. On the one hand, somebody who has not made a point of internalizing the trait of truth despite the daily temptations we are all faced with, gradually gets used to breaking promises and to various other deviations from the truth. Generally speaking, a person not only deceives others, but also himself, not considering himself to be a real liar. He comes up with tortuous self-justification about "white lies", "everybody doing it" and so on. Slowly but surely, the person's attribute of truth gets eroded. Nevertheless, we all seem to retain at least a minimal commitment to the truth, so that when a politician goes beyond even political norms, this brings about a reaction from all sections of the public.

It is to be hoped that we are far removed from the "culture of falsehood" which the secular media talks about, but we should still be aware of the lesson taught by Rabbeinu Yonah that there are various levels of falsehood, and that even seemingly insignificant deviations from the truth, may result in the wholesale adoption of the midda of sheker.

When talking about the "sect of liars" (in section 3 of Shaarei Teshuva), Rabbeinu Yonah divides those belonging to this sect into nine different types. One of them is a person "who lies about something he has heard, and changes some details intentionally. He derives no benefit from these lies and the other person suffers no harm, but his love of falsehood is such that sometimes he will make up a whole story." Rabbeinu Yonah says that on the one hand the punishment of such a person is not so severe because no harm results from his lies, but on the other hand, his punishment is great, because he cultivates within himself "the love of falsehood." About such a person Shlomo Hamelech said, "He that breathes out lies [will become] a false witness."

"This means that if you see somebody lying in his speech and conversation, you may be sure that this trait will lead him to bear false testimony against his brother and to speak evil of him, because of his love of falsehood."

As soon as a person gives up his commitment to the truth, even if only regarding trivial matters or exaggerations relating to meaningless small talk, he is likely to end up showing a blatant disregard for what comes out of his mouth, and there can be no guarantee that he will stick to the truth even regarding weightier matters, even to the point of committing perjury.

We have in the past talked in this column about problematic "norms" of exaggerations which have become a routine part of our lives. We have to consider carefully how this influences the atmosphere in our streets and how it affects our children.

Recently I came across a publication written two years ago after the tefilloh gathering of hundreds of thousands at the entrance to Yerushalayim. It was undoubtedly a very important event, in which the whole chareidi public, headed by its gedolim, united in a mass gathering of prayer to our Father in Heaven to thwart the attempts of the anti- religious public to uproot the Torah via the secular courts. One of the participants in this gathering decided to publish a booklet describing his thoughts and feelings in the wake of the demonstration. It is full of exaggerations and strange comparisons.

He starts of by saying that "this was a unique historic event, which will henceforth be commemorated as a most significant episode in the history of the Jewish nation, a central event whose significance is not limited to the time and the place in which it occurred. Just like those occurrences in history which were later marked as turning points of elevated and eternal import, note this date: Sunday the 28th of Shvat, 5759. It is not a date like any other, but one that will be marked as an historical turning point forever."

The author compares the gathering to the events of the generation that went out of Egypt and received the Torah! He writes, "It is obvious that this glorious event will take its place in the forefront of momentous and impressive occasions in the history of the Jewish nation. Our history is not overflowing with gatherings of this significance. We may without hesitation classify this event as being of the same order of importance as the great events of our nation, both from the point of view of its magnificent content, and certainly with regard to the number of participants in the gathering and its repercussions.

"Since krias yam Suf and maamad Har Sinai there has not been such a great gathering in our history. It may be compared to Eliyohu at Har Hakarmel (Melochim I, chapter 18) or Ezra on Rosh Hashonoh in Yerushalayim: `And all the people gathered themselves together as one man' (Nechemia 8:1). It is true that those events were accompanied by prophecy, miracles and marvels, but in importance and scope we were witness to one of the most important gatherings in Jewish history. How fortunate we have been to participate in it. I do not think that since matan Torah there has been such a large gathering of people all saying Shema Yisroel together. For our purposes the assembly may be compared to Eliyohu's confrontation with the nevi'ei habaal, at the end of which came the declaration Hashem Hu ho'elokim."

The language of exaggerations knows no bounds, and that chareidi author, in the middle of the essay, asserts that this event is worthy of being included in the Tanach. This sounds unbelievable, but I quote: "If we would consider this great gathering from the perspective of Knesses Yisroel and Kudsha Berich Hu, then we would realize that we are dealing with a momentous, central event which occurs once every forty or fifty generations. It is a chapter in Tanach! The Jewish nation records its history in the Tanach, and such an event would undoubtedly have taken up a whole chapter in Nevi'im. The events of Chanukah could already not be included, because prophecy was no longer prevalent.

"Presumably when Moshiach will come bimheiro beyomeinu and we will have prophets once again, they, or perhaps Moshiach himself, will record all the events that happened to the Jewish nation since the conclusion of the period of prophecy. The nevi'im recorded all the events from Creation until Malachi. The events from the Knesses Hagedola until the redemption will be recorded in future books which will be added to the 24 existing ones. This magnificent gathering will surely receive its rightful place amongst these new chapters of the nevi'im. One chapter or more will be devoted to describing the events of that day. This acceptance of ol malchus Shomayim was of historical significance and reminds us of the acceptance of the Torah in the days of Mordechai and Esther, except that in those days the acceptance came about as a result of the love for Hashem that we felt in the wake of the miracle, whereas no miracle preceded this gathering: Knesses Yisroel willingly and lovingly declared that it was united with Hashem!"

He goes on to express the hope that the gathering will result in tremendous developments: "We may be certain that a new period will begin now in which Hakodosh Boruch Hu will demonstrate His love for His people. In the merit of our having increased Hashem's name and His glory, Hashem will favor us with His kindness and mercy. Within a short period we will feel this in all areas of our life. This event has changed the face of our times, a new period is about to begin. The pre- gathering period is not the same as the post-gathering one."

In conclusion, the author writes: "A bas kol came out of the gathering and declared, `Whoever was present here, is invited to [i.e. assured of a place in] the Next World'. This bas kol was bound to appear: if a bas kol appeared in honor of a talmid chochom when Rebbi passed away, all the more so would it appear for such an occasion."

This booklet is an example of what happens when exaggerations and hyperbole are used to describe even positive and important events. If a Torah gathering, significant as it may have been, is equated with krias yam Suf and maamad Har Sinai, with Eliyohu at Har Hakarmel and the acceptance of the Torah in the days of Mordechai, and to top it all we are assured that it will become "a chapter in one of the future books which will be added to the 24 existing books of the Tanach," then this should ring our alarm bells and alert us to the dangers inherent in all exaggerations.

As Rabbeinu Yonah says, the obligation to stick to the truth and keep away from falsehood is not only due to the immediate practical effects of lies and exaggerations, but also to the influence of these on the person as a whole, irrespective of the specific context of the false statements. Someone who gets used to fabricating or exaggerating stories, acquires the habit of building a world of fantasy, which is actually a world of falsehood, created by one's nonsense and with no relation to the world of reality.

Let us not treat this topic lightly, wondering what harm can come from a bit of claptrap. Our rabbonim have taught us that man is a creature of his actions, and that these eventually affect his motives and desires. As Rabbeinu Yonah says, "If you see somebody lying in his speech and conversation, you may be sure that this trait will lead him to bear false testimony against his brother."

An innocent exaggeration or some childish fantasy could lead to real prohibitions such as bearing false testimony. The above quotations also serve to show us that ludicrous exaggerations can lead to preposterous comparisons and even forbidden statements.

All of us must be aware of this point. In our daily conversations, as well as when we speak in public or print material for the general public's consumption -- and I include us, the correspondents of Yated Ne'eman -- let us not use a style of exaggerations and unwarranted superlatives. Such a style could give our children the mistaken impression that sticking to the truth is a "high level" which is only expected of the rare individual, whereas common speech need not accord with the absolute truth, chas vesholom.

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