Shabbat Zakhor: When a Lie is Right

The word Zakhor, which is the special name attached to this Shabbat before Purim, means “remember.” We are commanded to remember to blot out the name of Amalek, a historical enemy of our people who is seen recurring in those who have tried to eradicate the Jewish people from the earth: from Haman in the Purim story, to more recent villains, we see them as the personification of the evil we do to each other in human history.
The historian Hayim Yosef Yerushalmi wrote that it is a curious thing, to be commanded to remember to forget, for that is what we’re being told to do: forget hate, and work for the day when no one in the whole world with remember what that word means.
The battle against hate takes interesting forms. One of them is the use of a human stratagem which is all to often misused: the lie.
Consider if you will the following story from our ancient tradition, focusing upon Rabbi Meir, who lived in the Galilee during the Roman occupation (the time of the development of the Mishnah, the first code of Jewish law).
Rabbi Meir used to teach Torah every Erev Shabbat. One evening his teaching went longer than usual, and a woman who came regularly to hear him came home late to find her husband waiting for her. He was angry and refused to hear her explanation, that she had been at Torah study, and her apology, having not wanted to miss the end of the lesson and, perhaps, to have seemed to be disrespectful to the teacher.
“I will not accept your explanation nor your apology,” he said to her, “unless you go back to that Rabbi and spit in his face.”
The woman refused, and the two of them did not speak for one week, then two, then three.
Her friends came to her and asked her to take them to hear the Rabbi’s Torah teaching. Rabbi Meir had heard the story, and when he saw her, he immediately said to her,
“I am suffering from an eye condition, and have been told that someone must spit in my eye to cure it. Would you mind doing so for me?”
The woman spit in his eye.
“Seven times,” he said. She did so.
“Now go to your husband,” said Rabbi Meir, “and tell him this: you told me to spit at him once, but I did so seven times.” (VaYikra Rabbah 9.9)
This is how great the obligation is to make peace, our Jewish tradition insists: sometimes you may have to work around people’s emotions by allowing them to believe they’ve won the argument even when they’re wrong. In other words, sometimes it’s right to lie. Jewish ethical tradition insists that lying is sometimes the only way to peace.
This kind of lying is employed, Hillel taught, when we praise all brides as beautiful, or that the thing you just bought is wonderful (even though I don’t really like it or think you got a good deal). This is lying for the sake of someone’s feelings – which is the first, foundational building block of a caring community. It is not even really lying as much as it is insisting that there is more than one standard for beauty, or for appreciation of a belonging.
Notice that Rabbi Meir isn’t getting anything out of this lie which he creates. If anything, he is retreating from the insistence on the truth of the situation, for there is something greater here, and that is the well-being of a human relationship.
Something greater than truth? Yes. According to a midrash, the truth is that human beings should never have been created, and G*d chose to ignore that truth in order to create us, despite all our capacity to destroy, for the sake of all our capacity to love.
Ethical Jewish lying may thus be defined by the following parameters:
1. it is not a lie for personal gain or avoidance of consequences
2. it respects that some situations are beyond the reach of cool, calm, considered logical truth
3. it therefore allows a meta truth to triumph over a situational challenge
Meir’s lie allows the truth of the relationship to continue. Not everything has to be said, and not every point has to be forced.
Another story in the Talmud attached to Rabbi Meir has him making peace between two friends who have argued. He goes to the first and tells him that the other misses her terribly and realizes that she is right. Then he goes to the other, who hears the same thing. While the friends might have said that this was a lie, it was a momentary lie, for the larger truth is that they were friends, and they did miss the friendship.
There is a final, humbling reality key to this kind of compassionate, loving lying if it is to work, which is found in the realization that we don’t know truth anyway. We only know the perspective we have, and there are, we are taught, 70 ways to understand every verse and every word of Torah – and, how much more so, the situations of our lives.
On this Shabbat, give someone the benefit of the doubt. Realize that the truth you believe you know is only your truth, not the truth. And consider whether you might be using a truth you think you know as a weapon, where we are commanded, above all, to love peace, and pursue it.

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