Reader: Dear Mesora,
Why does our Holy Torah contain so many instances of deception? After being a student of the Chumash for many years, I am left with a feeling of misunderstanding. Whenever I conclude a Parsha that illustrates deception performed by our Patriarchs, I cannot arrive at a positive explanation for its inclusion. I feel that all
that these illuminations of deception do, is provide the Gentiles with more ammunition to criticize the Jewish people.
While driving from Florida to New York, I was listening to a sermon by a minister on the Parsha about Shechem, where Simeon and Levi deceived the men to undergo circumcision, then killed them in their helpless state out of revenge for their sister Dinah. “Look out for the tricky Jews!” he was preaching. “Even in their own Bible we see how deceitful the Jew is!” Are these the same ministers who proclaim to be supporting Israel? Aren’t ‘they’ the ones being deceptive?
Can you imagine how many listeners he was reaching through this radio broadcast? Can you imagine how much anti-Semitism he was spreading? How much more hate does he vocalize from behind the closed doors of his parish? We Jews must not be blind and naive to the claims of our neighbors, that they are not anti-Semitic. Our Holy Torah contains many examples of deceit, such as the serpent deceiving Eve into eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge. Abraham asked his wife Sarah to pretend she was his sister twice. Jacob put on animal skins, at his other Rebecca’s behest, to appear to be his brother Esav so as to obtain Isaac’s blessings. Jacob deceived Laban out of his flock. Rachael stole an idol from her father Laban. Laban tricked Jacob into marrying his daughter Leah. Joseph’s brothers tricked their father Jacob, to believe in Joseph’s death, by showing him Joseph’s blood stained coat. Joseph deceived his brothers in Egypt to make them believe he was the Viceroy of Pharaoh.
What really bothers me is the combined affect of all of the above. Have we been given the Chumash as a “Book of instruction” on how to con our fellow man?
Mesora: Your question is very important. At the core of Judaism, is our firm attachment and unmatched position held by “honesty”. Only with honesty can one learn: if we assume we know something when it is not yet clear to our minds, we deceive ourselves. But if we remain truthful, we can say we don’t know, when we don’t. This humility and honesty allows us to continue our search for answers until we do in fact arrive at one. This is why honesty is the cornerstone to Torah knowledge, and all knowledge. Without honesty, we cannot learn, and we fail at our objective: to know and love God through His Torah. Honesty is demanded in all areas, and certainly, when the very question posed is precisely about that topic.
However, we must distinguish between honesty in intellectual pursuits, and between the honesty we engage in society. The Torah does permit one to lie on rare occasions, such as saving his life. We only subject ourselves to death for the three sins of idolatry, adultery, and murder. In these cases we must suffer death, and not violate. But as for all other prohibitions, only if the intent of our oppressor’s ultimatum is our public denial of God’s commands, do we violate, instead of dying, as the Torah says, “Live by them” (the commands). The Rabbis clarify, “Live by them and do not die by them.” Thus, we are mandated not to sacrifice our lives when given an ultimatum to violate or die, except in the three mentioned. Therefore, lying is allowed to save one’s life. This answers why Abraham asked his wife to say she was his sister. Abraham knew if he said Sarah was his wife, the Egyptians would kill him to marry her. However, by lying and claiming she was his sister, their desire for Sarah would cause them to bribe Abraham with wealth and fame. This was Abraham’s plan: to obtain a public, respected status, whereby no one would harm him once they learned the truth. (Rabbi Bernard Fox) This case is an example where deceit is permitted for saving a life. But what of cases where a life is not at risk? Is lying permitted?
Regarding the snake that lied to Eve, we read that God punished it. Laban as well had no grounds for switching his promised daughter. So both cases are clearly violations of justice. Neither one was a Torah abiding character.
When the brother’s lied to their father about Joseph’s death, it was not a simple case of kidnapping. Together, they had discussed the matter of their young, seemingly egomaniacal brother, and concluded that he was delusional, and could harm matters of establishing the Twelve Tribes. They did not function out of simple animosity. (God would not create a nation from base individuals.) Their sale of Joseph was due to their judgment of a greater good. But in this case, they sinned. They judged him as an adult, when he had not yet been released from the clutches of his infantile emotions. (Rabbi Israel Chait) So the Torah exposes the flaws of deceit quite clearly, but not without informing us of the other good character traits of these Ten Tribes. We learn an important lesson: the Torah does not hide man’s flaws, and does not condone deceit of an improper kind, but exposes man’s sins so we may learn what is poor character, as well as what is proper character.
What of Joseph’s deceiving his brothers, as Egypt’s viceroy, feigning he did not know them, and fabricating his elaborate accusations, imprisoning Judah and forcing Jacob to relinquish Benjamin in their care? How was Joseph justified in placing such heartache on his father and brothers? A Rabbi once explained that Joseph’s previous two dreams (of the wheat bowing to him, and the stars, sun and moon bowing to him), was prophetic permission. Joseph realized when he saw his brothers bowing to him in Egypt to purchase wheat, that his previous dreams were prophetic. He realized that God had given him those earlier prophetic dreams, indicating, that when one dream comes true, i.e., when his brothers would bow for wheat, he was Divinely permitted to cause the second dream’s truth, (stars, sun and moon bowing): he was permitted by God through these dreams to use the situation of the first dream - the famine (wheat), to arrive at the second dream - metaphysical superiority, i.e., perfecting the through his scheme. Joseph now realized that he was condoned by God via these dreams, to help perfect his brothers and his father, represented in the dream as heavenly spheres bowing to Joseph, or literally, Joseph’s spiritual superiority over them. He was allowed to use the occurrence of the first dream (famine/wheat) to help perfect them, thereby realizing dream #2: perfection (“heavenly” matters). Joseph successfully recreated the identical scenario when he was sold, now embodied in the “culprit” Benjamin. He did this to force his brothers to repent for his own sale to the Ishmaelites, placing Benjamin as a stand-in for himself. The brothers were now faced with the exact same decision as when they sold Joseph: “Should we let the charges stand that Benjamin stole the viceroy’s cup and abandon him, or should we defend him?” Only with an exact scenario is “complete repentance” achieved. This was Joseph’s plan. Joseph was also successful at breaking his father’s attachment to Benjamin in the process. However, without these dreams, Joseph had no right to place others in such straits. So Joseph too was correct in his deceit, as it was demanded by God for the greater good that the brothers and Jacob become more perfected. (Rabbi Israel Chait)
Jacob’s success increasing his share while herding Laban’s flock through his checkered rods was not a case of deceit, as here too, he did so through prophetic instruction. But without such a Divine directive, it could have been deceit.
Earlier, Jacob rightfully purchased the birthright from his brother Esav. When Isaac was getting old, Rebecca instructed Jacob to deceive his blind father, as she knew an outright exposure of Esav’s true, evil nature would threaten Jacob’s receipt of his rightfully owned blessings. In order that the patriarchal blessings were successfully bestowed upon the true recipient, Rebecca told Jacob to lie. But we learn that this lie was for the greater good that Isaac blesses the true Torah personality, and not the evil son Esav.
Rachel’s theft of her father’s idols was intended to remove him from idolatry. Although Rachel went about her goal improperly, (Laban was about to kill Jacob, his daughters and their children), Rachel’s desire that her father abandon idolatry was a proper goal.
Now, what about the minister’s accusation of the Jews based on the event at Shechem? Were Simon and Levi justified in murdering the inhabitants for kidnapping and seducing their sister Dinah? The Rabbis disagree on their error. One Rabbi suggests that their sin was limited to killing those who were not directly involved in Dinah’s seduction: the violators alone were deserving of death, while the others were not. However another view suggests that when one does not reprimand another, although not committing the crime, he is equally guilty. Thus, Simone and Levi were in fact justified in killing all the males. Another view is that Jacob’s sons had no right to enforce judgment on Shechem’s inhabitants. But regardless of the view, what we learn is that a simple reading of the Written Law, the Bible, as this minister did, does not do justice to a Book which is accompanied by the Oral Law, the essential second half. The minister read verses without understanding their true meaning, and arrived at an erroneous conclusion. Had this minister followed the teachings of the Rabbis and not his own mind, which was lacking the Oral Law, he might have been impressed with the honesty of our Rabbis who accuse Simon and Levi or wrongdoing. However, the misleading information offered to Shechem according to the other Rabbi was justified.
Hillel and Shammai disputed whether lying about the beauty of one’s bride is permissible. The very dispute indicates that one favored lying. Why? This is because there exists a greater goal than honesty - in an individual case. To lie to the groom, has “peace” as its goal. This is in order to create the peaceful backdrop for a life of Torah, where a life pursuing truth may exist. Truth in an individual case must be sacrificed, if truth for the person’s greater life is to be secured. As a Rabbi once said, shall we tell the truth to a child who did something poorly and regretted his actions, if such a truth will devastate him at this early age? Of course not. A lie is not an inherently evil thing. Similarly, if a killer demands from us the location of his target, we must lie, saying we do not know.
We must also know that we cannot make determinations about our own lying as the forefathers had done. Unlike the patriarchs and matriarchs, we now have a Torah system, which outlines precise laws for when and where to act, in every matter. Additionally, we are nowhere near their level of perfection. We cannot equate ourselves to such perfected individuals, with whom God spoke, and designated as our nation’s leaders.
In summary, the Torah demands honesty in all areas of life. However, reason dictates a few cases wherein a lie must exist, so as to achieve a greater good. Therefore, provided a lie is for the ultimate goal of a Torah life, a lie is permitted. A lie is not equivalent to that which is inherently evil, such as idolatry, adultery or murder, which is never permitted under any circumstance.
By reviewing these many cases, we learn that the Torah does in fact expose when a lie is evil, but it also teaches when it is correct.