When is lying permitted?
This question comes to the foreground in our Torah’s unfolding story. Moses has misled Pharaoh. The Israelite leader did not say, “Let my people go for we refuse to serve as your slaves.” Rather he repeatedly said on behalf of God, “Let My people go to worship Me in the wilderness (Exodus 7:16, 26; 8:16; 9:1,13) and gave a specific time frame of three days (Exodus 8:23). No wonder Pharaoh and his officers sent the army in hot pursuit when after three days the Israelites failed to return. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in a recent d’var Torah explains that when dealing with a tyrant misleading statements are permitted, for such a person holds power unfairly and cruelly and is unworthy of any respect [http://rabbisacks.org/freedom-truth-vaera-5777/]. Otherwise, truth telling is essential for the future of any relationship.
In this week’s Torah reading, the Ten Commandments emphasize that honesty is a foundational expectation.
Third command: “You shall not swear falsely by the name of the Lord your God; for the Lord will not clear one who swears falsely by that name” (Exodus 20:7). On this verse, Abraham Ibn Ezra (Spain, 1089-1164) comments “If one does not keep one’s word, that is tantamount to repudiating the name of God.”
Ninth command: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Exodus 20:13). This prohibition is in the same verse as murder, adultery and theft. According to the rabbinic sages, this law holds even when not swearing with God’s name in the context of judicial proceedings. Moses Alshekh (Turkey, 16th century), will comment that – “‘You shall not testify falsely on behalf on your neighbor’ even to help an honest person with a case in which a witness is lacking.”
Yiddish sayings encapsulate the wisdom of our people’s lived experience. Two come to mind that are pertinent to truth-telling:
A halber emez iz a gantzer ligen’ – “A half truth is a whole lie.”
Der emes kumt aroys vi boyml fun vaser– “The truth comes out like oil on water.”
These admonitions begin with ourselves. As we recite in the closing paragraph of our thrice-daily Amidah prayers: “My God, keep my tongue from evil, my lips from lies.”