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Torah Commentary
Vayeira (October 31, 2015)

Stephanie Crawley,
Rabbinic Intern

PARASHAT VAYEIRA picks up right in the middle of the story of the lives of Abraham and Sarah. However, this couple is not middle age. Sarah is 90 years old, Abraham is 100, and they are childless. But their lives change suddenly, when three mysterious strangers arrive at their tent, and the couple graciously and enthusiastically welcomes them in with food and a place to rest underneath a tree. With Sarah presumably out of earshot, the three strangers inform Abraham that his wife will bear a son within the next year. This is not radical news to Abraham, as God already has assured him that Sarah would give birth to a son, ensuring the fulfillment of God’s covenant with Abraham.

Sarah, however, does not know this information. She overhears the miraculous news that she will conceive and bear a child in her old age. And how does she take this news? She responds as most of us likely would in such an unimaginable situation: Laughing incredulously to herself, Sarah expresses disbelief at the prospect of conceiving a child, not just because she is old and “worn out” but also because Abraham is not quite the “young stud” he used to be.

Sarah’s internal monologue is heard by God, who is disturbed by Sarah’s lack of faith. God brings this up with Abraham and asks him why Sarah laughed. But when reviewing Sarah’s actions, God changes one major detail. God says to Abraham: “Why did Sarah laugh, saying ‘Will I really bear a child, as old as I am?’”

But, this is not what Sarah said to her self! In her response, Sarah spoke of both herself and her husband’s age. Why does God lie?

Our tradition provides two explanations:

1) Rabbi Ishmael suggests that God does this in order to maintain peace in the home, saying: “Peace is a precious thing, for even the God made a variation for its sake.”

2) The story provides proof for the Talmudic principal known as ona’at devarim, preventing from hurting with words. Although God wanted to address Sarah’s reaction with Abraham, it was important not to say something that would hurt Abraham’s feelings, even if it was the truth.

Although the intentions may have been good, God still lies, breaking not one, but two commandments that prohibit lying: Exodus 23:1 and Exodus 23:7. In fact, Exodus 23:1 states explicitly, “You shall not utter a false report,” and this is exactly what God does when reporting Sarah’s laughter to Abraham.

Does this teach us that it is okay to lie for the sake of preserving peace or protecting a person’s feelings? Although the Talmud overwhelmingly prohibits lying, there are situations in which the Rabbis actually suggest that lying might be acceptable.

One such example comes from a not-quite politically correct dispute between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai, in which they debate how a person should go about congratulating a groom if his bride is not so attractive. (Babylonian Talmud, K’tubot 16b-17a)

Beit Shammai holds that the person must be honest, and that in no circumstance is it okay to give a false report. One must only describe the bride “as she is.” Beit Hillel, however, says that one must tell the groom that she is “lovely and charming,” even if this is not the truth, because it is a mitzvah to make the couple happy on their wedding day. Ultimately, Beit Hillel’s opinion wins out, and the Rabbinic consensus is that one may tell a lie in service of doing the right thing, whether that is for peace or avoiding insult.

Beyond teaching us that telling white lies is okay in service of a larger good, these texts emphasize the serious need to be aware of the power our words. The Rabbis teach us that shaming someone in public is like killing them and that spreading gossip is akin to spilling blood. We must be aware acutely of the power of our words to help, heal or hurt others.

Even God is aware of how Sarah’s words, although true, might have hurt Abraham and chooses deliberately to protect Abraham’s feelings, at the expense of giving a completely truthful account of what Sarah said.

God, too, knows the power of words, and God’s tactful response provides a model for human compassion and considerateness.

Proverbs 18:21 teaches that “death and life lie in the power of the tongue.” We always must consider our words and constantly remind ourselves of the great effect that they can have on others, even if this means accepting that perhaps honesty isn’t always the best policy.

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