There is a trick question I sometimes ask students: Which of the Ten Commandments says, "Thou shalt not lie"? Usually, people think about this and take a few guesses. Number six? Eight? Nine?
The answer is that there is no commandment not to lie. Not only does it not exist in the "Big Ten," there is no commandment against lying anywhere in the Torah.
When the three divine messengers came to the tent of Abraham and Sarah at the beginning of this week's portion (Vayera), one of them announced, "I will return to you next year, and your wife Sarah shall have a son!" (Genesis 18:10). When Sarah heard this, she thought to herself, "Now that I am withered, am I to have enjoyment, and with my husband so old?” (verse 12). Sarah, it seems, had a chuckle over the idea that Abraham, 99 years old, would be able to perform sexually and father a son for her. God, of course, heard Sarah's thoughts. God responded to them immediately.
However, the words of God's response did not accurately reflect what Sarah had thought. The next verses tell us that God said to Abraham, "Why did Sarah laugh, saying, 'Shall I in truth bear a child, old as I am?' Is anything too wondrous for Adonai? I will return to you at the time next year, and Sarah shall have a son" (verses 13-14). What happened? God told Abraham that Sarah was laughing about how old she was, rather than telling him that she actually was thinking about how old he was.
You might call it a moment of "Viagra sensitivity." God decided that it would be better to bend the truth a bit to spare Abraham of the knowledge that Sarah was laughing about his lack of sexual prowess. Some things are better left unspoken. A little white lie, in this case, did no harm to either Abraham or Sarah, and it served to avoid resentment or hurt feelings between the two.
The classical rabbis noticed this moment of divine prevarication. From this incident, they came to a conclusion about the relative value of speaking the truth. A midrash teaches, "Bar Kappara said: Great is peace for even Torah twisted the truth in order to preserve peace between Abraham and Sarah" (Genesis Rabbah 48:18). Peace is a greater value even than truth.
Not all lies are excusable. Some lies are meant to keep wrongdoing hidden. Some lies are intended to prevent someone from avoiding a harm or taking advantage of a benefit. Some lies are merely for the convenience or comfort of the liar. These kinds of lies clearly are forbidden in Jewish law. They are regarded as "placing a stumbling block before the blind" (Leviticus 19:14), or they are ways of stealing a person's ability to make a reasoned choice (called g'neivat da'at in Jewish law; B. Chullin 94a).
But there are other kinds of lies, too. A lie that offers comfort to another person, or that prevents a hurt without causing harm, is not a sin. A lie that spares a person from hearing a brutal truth, one that does him or her no good, may actually be a blessing.
When my grandmother's sister was elderly, near death, and in dementia's grip, she would ask about my grandmother. If someone told her the truth—that my grandmother had died—she would burst into inconsolable weeping. Every time she asked the question and heard the truthful answer, it was as if she was hearing the horrible news for the first time. It was terrible to witness, especially when it occurred multiple times in a single day.
The family decided that we would spare her the truth. When she asked, "How is Betty?" we would just say, "Betty is doing fine. She's all right"—a lie— and my great aunt could sleep more peacefully. Could there be a commandment against a lie like that? No way.
Truth is great, and we have an instinctive desire to seek truth and to push away lies. But "truth at any cost" may come, sometimes, at too great a cost. Knowing the difference—between the times when the truth must out, and the times when truth should take a back seat to peace—is wisdom far greater than any truth.
Other Topics on This Post:
The King's Advisor
Ha'azinu: Who Can Force the Hand of God?