A little old lady gets onto a crowded bus and stands in front of a seated young girl. Holding her hand to her chest, she says to the girl, "If you knew what I have, you would give me your seat." The girl gets up and gives up her the seat to the old lady. It is hot. The girl then takes out a fan and starts fanning herself. The woman looks up and says, "If you knew what I have, you would give me that fan." The girl gives her the fan, too.
Fifteen minutes later the woman gets up and says to the bus driver, "Stop, I want to get off here." The bus driver tells her he has to drop her at the next corner, not in the middle of the block. With her hand across her chest, she tells the driver, "If you knew what I have, you would let me off the bus right here." The bus driver pulls over and opens the door to let her out. As she's walking out of the bus, he asks, "Madam, what is it you have? "The old woman looks at him and nonchalantly replies, "Chutzpah."
Truth is an idea as important as any in human existence. It is as critical for human relationships as the air we breath, because without truth, there is no trust, and without trust, I can’t drop my kids off at school, or make a meeting with another person, or even buy a loaf of bread with these funny green papers in my wallet. We all rely on the truth.
And yet at the same time, truth is impossible to assign a binary, absolute value. What one person sees as an obvious reality, another will say is a mere matter of opinion. In the parlance of our time, one person’s fact is another person’s fake news. From one perspective, one could argue that the lady on the bus lied to the bus driver three times in order to make it to the doorstep of her house without exerting herself. That would be true. It would also be true to say that she’s nothing if not honest. She does, indeed, have chutzpah.
When it comes to Judaism, and Torah, and us here now, Truth is absolutely fundamental to why we come here today. We come seeking understanding, and meaning. And not relative, subjective truth. We want God and Torah to be true in an unquestionable, unshakable way. We want to know that the Torah is true.
For starters, we’ll need to define some terms and clear up some misconceptions. Because the Torah is True, with a capital ‘T’, even when it isn’t actually true, with a lower case ‘t’. Let me explain.
There’s a handful of stories in the Torah that you’re all familiar with that have a few practical logistical problems to them, and yet, ever since you were a little bubbeleh in Hebrew school, you probably didn’t pay those problems much mind. There’s the story of Adam and Eve, in which, despite millions of scientific papers on evolution stretching back 200 years into the past, presumes that humans did not evolve from monkeys, but rather started with one couple in a garden with nothing but infinite access to fruit, not a lot of clothes, and a lot of free time on their hands. There’s the story of Noah, in which a guy was told to build a boat and save two of every kind of animal on the planet. There are, according to one scientific organization, 8.7 million different species on planet earth today. Even if we stripped out all the ones that could fly and swim and didn’t need a ride on the SS Noah, I don’t think they’d all fit on that ark. There’s the story of Moses, who talked to God in a miraculous bush that burned without being consumed, and could transform his staff into a snake, and through God’s might could turn rivers to blood and bring forth hail and split the sea in two and summon forth bread from the sky for 600,000 people and get water out of rocks.
So the question can immediately be asked- are these stories True? With a lowercase t, the answer is I dunno, but probably not. By that I mean, they might not have literally happened the way the Torah says they did.
But that doesn’t mean the Torah is a book of lies, and it doesn’t mean we should turn our backs on it in favor of something really compelling on Netflix. Netflix is great, but anyone who watched the first three seasons of West Wing and then saw the fourth and the fifth knows that you can’t just blindly put your faith in Hollywood to deliver.
The Torah is not necessarily true, lowercase t, because it isn’t meant to be. The Torah is True, with a capital T, and that is more important. What do I mean?
Here’s a story you all know. When George Washington was little child, he got a shiny new axe. To try out his axe, he went to the backyard where he saw a cherry tree, and he cut down that cherry tree. His father came home, and, seeing the tree, asked young George what he had done. To this, Washington replied “Father, I can not ____________ (tell a lie). I chopped down the cherry tree. According to the story, Washington’s father embraced him, and rejoiced that his son’s honesty was worth more than a thousand trees.
Now. Is that story true? No. After George Washington died in 1799, biographer and Protestant minister Mason Weems included the mythical story in a biography of Washington, written in 1806. The goal of the story was to illustrate to readers that that Washington’s public greatness was due to his private virtues. (Jay Richardson, George Mason University)
The story is not true with a lowercase t. But is it True, with a capital t? Does it illustrate the simple and straightforward concept, well ensconced American understandings of our first president, in that George Washington was an honest man, full of moral virtue? Absolutely.
This issue of ‘True’ vs ‘Truth’ is the crux of the whole struggle between Liberal Judaism, including even Modern Orthodoxy, and the more fundamentalist elements of Orthodox Judaism. For the orthodox, for something to be capital T true, it must be lowercase t true as well. The earth is not 4.5 billion years old, it is 5778 years old. Dinosaur bones are not bones at all: they’re rocks, or mislabeled elephant bones. And Moses did all those things because the Torah says so. The Torah is true because God gave it to us, and we know God gave it to us because the Israelites were there to witness the exchange.
How do we know the Israelites witnessed the exchange? Because the Torah says so.
You all laughed because you see the problem. For Orthodoxy, the every word in the book must be literally true in order for the truths to be true, for the morals to be true, for the principles to be true.
And that, I would argue, is incorrect.
The stories of the Torah are true in a deeper than literal sense. They have resonance and meaning that makes it totally irrelevant whether they actually happened in exactly the way to Torah tells us. Take today’s torah portion as an example.
In it, we are told Abraham takes his son Isaac up the mountain, because God instructed him to sacrifice him as an example of Abraham’s true faith, his trust, his belief, in our God. And at the last moment, God halts the sacrifice. The story is jarring, for modern ears. In a literal sense, it’s the story of a father nearly murdering his son because voices in his head told him to. And that’s really rather disturbing.
But we as a people don’t read this story literally, because, I would argue, we are not supposed to. The truth in this story is not in the factual existence of a guy named Abraham and his son Isaac. While I’d like to think that they exist, since I mention their names every time I say the Amidah prayer, I can’t really know for sure if they did. What I can know is that our Torah wants us to understand that Abraham is a righteous man of faith, and that on Rosh Hashanah, we should see ourselves in relation to Abraham - are we true? Are we faithful? Do we place our trust in things that are eternal, and meaningful, like God? Do we put enough faith in ourselves because we were created by God? The story is True, Capital T, because it teaches eternal truths. It is not true because those animals all got on that boat.
With all that being said, the stories in the Torah are not lies. A lie, as I am defining it, is a deliberately told mistruth meant to lead an individual to believe something other than what the facts clearly demonstrate. It is not a lie for the lady on bus to say she has ‘chutzpah’, that’s an opinion. It would be a lie if she said she had an artificial leg from when she stepped on a landmine during the Revolutionary War. It isn’t a lie say that taxes in America are too high, that’s an opinion. It is a lie to say that our country pays the highest taxes in the world. We don’t. Depending on how you count it, American taxes are somewhere between the 10th highest in the world and 37th highest in the world. If something is real and compelling, the truth speaks for itself. And if you need to manipulate the facts or invent statistics about something, then it’s probably gonna resemble a steaming pile you’d find on the back forty of Joel and Karen’s ranch.
The Torah’s most important core value is truth. The Torah is a book predicated on the belief that we can peer past the veil and discern reality - that we can know God’s true will. That we invest so much belief in it, and that we push and pull and tweak its each and every word with such effort - is further evidence that we as a people believe that the Torah is true.
The Torah’s principal occupation is to apply truth in a way that regulates human behavior fairly and honestly. That act of discerning truth in order to be fair and righteous - we humans call it justice.
The Hebrew word for truth is Emet - Aleph, Mem, Tav. Aleph, you probably know, is the first letter in the Hebrew alphabet. Tav is the last letter in the Hebrew alphabet. And mem is the middle letter.
As Rabbi Louis Jacobs taught, The God of truth is found wherever there is truth and His absence is felt wherever there is falsehood.
As Rabbi Yehuda Leib Alter of Ger would teach, that means that truth is the beginning, the middle, and the end of the Torah. Moreover, he taught
“There is no final depth or end to justice or truth. When the Torah tells us ‘Justice Justice shall you pursue, it compels us that we must go deeper, seeking out the truth even within the truth.”
The Torah is a model for us. It both stands as a document that reveals deep truths, but also demands that we be honest with others, and ourselves.
That is no small feat.
When I was 16, I got into a car accident. I rear-ended two cars making a left, pushing one of the cars into the opposite lanes of traffic. No body was killed, thank God, but my car and several others were totalled. To be honest, I’m not exactly sure what happened. I suspect I wasn’t paying attention - I was fiddling with the radio or looking out the window, and I caused the accident.
But when my parents asked me what happened, I told tham a white van had blocked my view, and swung out of the lanes, leaving the two stopped cars in front of me with no time to stop. Simply put, I lied.
That day, I was dishonest. I was afraid of the truth - it wasn’t some other reckless driver that nearly killed somebody - it was me. I was responsible. But I was afraid of that truth. So I found an alternative that didn’t cast me as the irresponsible idiot teenager. But that was the truth - in that moment, that’s who I was. It took me a lot longer to come to grips with that truth, but I did. I learned that lesson every day for the next two years, as I pulled the bus pass out of my wallet and took the much longer and more inconvenient way home from school everyday. But eventually, we all must face the truth of our actions.
The High holidays are a time to be honest with ourselves and our actions. Rabbi Isaac Aboab in the 14th century wrote: “There are other matters which fall under the heading of falsehood; for example, when a man praises himself for having virtues he does not really possess.”
We are all capable of fabricating false narratives for ourselves and false images of who we wish to be, but are not. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are gut-check time- are you really this person that you’ve invented? Can we all drop the pretense of who we think we are, and be honest and true, capital T, with ourselves? As I said yesterday, will we really confront our flaws and consider who we truly wish to be? How will we go about this? Are we going to go to therapy? Are we going to apologize to a friend? Are we going to ask someone for their honest feedback? If the Torah is Truth and we are commanded to live in the Torah, then how can we not be honest with ourselves?
For us, that means we understand Torah as True, and we seek to understand the complicated moral dilemmas and complex allegories of Torah with open hearts and honest minds.
For us, it also means that we as Jews strive to seek truth and justice in every place and every time. We ask the hard questions when something doesn’t look right. We investigate the truth, and we never settle for alternate facts.
For ourselves in our personal deeds, it means taking seriously the refrains in the prayerbook that we say during these ten days of repentance, when we consider our past actions and strive to do better.
We have sinned against you -b’ chachash u’b’chazav - in denial and deceipt
We have sinned against you - b’hona’at ra - by defrauding others
We have sinned against you - b’azut metz’ach - through stubbornness.
May it be your blessing, Adonai, our God, that this year 5778 be a year for truth. That we see you, that we see Torah, that we see the world, that we see each other, that we see ourselves, in the light of truth. And let us all say, amen. Shana Tova.