Thursday, November 17, 2016

Definition iv: Accuracy


    “Truth is the dot in the centre of a circle”
       Abraham Ibn Ezra 

In Sefer HaIkarim, Rabbi Albo defines truth as the alignment between three factors: the external world, the perception of the world, and the communication of one’s perception. Accordingly, if one perceives an object accurately but fails to communicate it with precision, or accurately communicates it but errs in his initial perception, he deviates from Emet. Only one who correctly perceives an object and relays it faithfully is conveying Emet. This chapter explores two dimensions of accurate perception - breadth and depth - and discuses the importance of accurate communication. [1]

Breadth perception:

  Imbalanced or prejudiced perception blinds the mind’s eye to the complete truth, detaching a person from reality. For instance, an inclination toward kindness brings one to stress the positive features of an object while ignoring the negative. Conversely, a proclivity to criticise causes one to caricature negative aspects while overlooking or downplaying the positive. Only through centeredness and neutrality can one open himself to both the positive and negative elements of an object and thereby perceive it accurately. Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson articulates this definition of truth in context of self-appraisal:
“Truth is the middle path. An inclination to the left [to be] overly stringent with one’s self and to find faults or sins not in accord with the truth, or an inclination to the right, [to be] overly indulgent, covering one’s faults or being lenient in demands of divine service out of self love – both these ways are false.”[2]  

This notion chimes with a teaching from the Sefat Emet. When Moses discovered that a fellow Jew had informed on him to Pharaoh, he exclaimed, “In truth, the matter has been discovered.”[3] Rashi comments how at this point God showed Moses why the Jews deserve to suffer at the hands of the Egyptians. On this comment, the Sefat Emet asked, ‘Why would the agent handpicked by God to redeem the Jews from Egypt be made to see the Jews in such a negative light?’ He answered that it was specifically because Moses was sent to help the Jews that he needed to be aware of their negative traits so he may know what challenges the people pose and how to assist them to better themselves.[4]    

In Kabbalah, the quality of kindness is associated with the right, and sternness, with the left. Since first letters of the word ﬡמת, truth,[5] , is the rightmost letter of the Aleph-Bet and the last letter of ﬡמת is the leftmost letter in the Aleph-Bet, they signify kindness and sternness respectively. Meanwhile, the middle letter of ﬡמת, מ, is the centre most letter of the Aleph-Bet. It therefore suggests the ability to remain centred and impartial, and to access both opposing qualities of kindness and sternness to view reality accurately.[6]

In addition the fact that the letters of Emet are equally distributed across the Aleph-Bet serves to signify a balanced and comprehensive perspective. In contrast, the letters of the word sheker, falsehood, are bunched together right next to one another toward the far left of the Aleph-Bet, signalling a lopsided and partial perspective.[7] 

The fact that the first and last letters of the word Emet form the outer limits of the Aleph-Bet implies another lesson concerning accuracy of perception. Although an accurate perspective is one that does not overstep the boundaries of reality – as opposed to exaggeration, distortion, or pure fabrication - accuracy does require one to extend their perception to the outermost limits of an issue and to view it fully - as opposed to being selective, understating, or sugar coating. Discernment of truth thus requires going to the outer boundaries of an issue, to perceive it fully, but not to cross the boundary through any additions.[8]

Depth perception:

“Do not look at the barrel, but at what is in it; there is a new barrel filled with old wine, and an old barrel that does not even contain new wine.”
Pirkei Avot 4:27

Everything in existence consists of an inner and outer dimension; fruit and peel. An individual capable of penetrating to the inner dimension beholds the truth.[9] At a banal level, this can be applied to the appraisal of products for sale where one tries to distinguish between the true value of a product from the hype, colourful marketing strategies and brand names embellishing it.                           

A more poignant example of depth perception is how one relates a person. Composite of a body exterior and soul interior, his essence is his soul. True perception of a person thus involves viewing him predominantly as a soul, albeit one that expresses itself in the material world through a body.[10] The famous 20th Century psychiatrist and philosopher, Victor Frankel, articulated the dramatic implications of how one views a fellow human being.[11] By stressing the value of the body, a person’s worth becomes commensurate with his ability to contribute to society, especially economically. Consequently, the elderly, disabled, and mentally ill are deemed less valuable and inferior to the healthy and capable. However, by emphasizing the soul, the divine element within a person, every individual, regardless of his instrumental value, is intrinsically priceless; possessing dignity by virtue of his core existence.[12]

The Zohar distinguishes three layers of the Torah: garment, body, and soul.[13] The ‘garment’ refers to the narrative, the stories about Adam and Eve eating from the forbidden tree, Noah and the flood, Abraham’s communion with God, and the journeys of the Jews the wilderness. Garments are the most external and visible part of a person and Torah narrative is the most accessible layer of the Torah. The ‘body’ refers to the mitzvot of the Torah. The mitzvot consist of 248 positive precepts, corresponding to the 248 limbs of the human body, and 365 prohibitions, corresponding to 365 primary sinews.[14] When a Jew fulfils a mitzvah, he sanctifies the corresponding limb utilized to perform that mitzvah.[15] The mitzvot are thus seen as a metaphysical body, or more specifically, the Divine limbs.[16] The ‘soul’ refers to Kabbalah, the mystical secrets. Unlike the garments and the body which are apparent to the naked eye, the soul is invisible, glimpsed only through the body which it animates. Similarly, while Torah narrative and law are apparent, the mystical dimension is concealed. Thus, though every episode and law signify sublime truths about existence, they remain imperceptible to the uninitiated eye. Most relevantly, the Zohar refers to the soul of the Torah, the deepest layer, as the ‘True Torah.’[17] 

Ultimately, the entire natural world is a mask veiling the Divine creative energy which brings it into being.[18] A Midrash relates this theme to the nature of Shabbat observance:

‘To what can [the function of Shabbat] be compared? A king had an elegant ring made for him but he found it to be lacking something. It was his insignia. Similarly, [after God created the world He noticed] it was lacking something: Shabbat‘.[19]
The ring alludes to the natural world, which in Hebrew, Teva, is cognate with the word Taba’at, a ring.[20] The basic semantic parallel is that nature functions in repetitive ring-like cycles of which the orbiting planets, the water cycle, reproduction, the seasonal cycle, and the rhythmic circulation of blood, are examples. Furthermore, like a ring, nature appears to have no beginning or end, giving the impression that it always existed. Finally, because the natural world was created in six days, it is associated with that number, and according to the idea that numbers parallel geometric shapes, six corresponds to a circle,[21] a two-dimensional ring:

1 = point                                      4 = square            
2 = line          

                                                                        6 = circle                
3= triangle                                                                                               


After the six days of creation, nature concealed the Creator; the ‘ring’ was missing the ‘king’s’ signature. Therefore, at the conclusion of creation, God bestowed the world with Shabbat, a day of rest. But the question remains, how does Shabbat reveal that God is Creator of the world? During the six working days, Jews invest themselves in the material world, are somewhat entangled in it and feel estranged from God. On Shabbat, however, they withdraw from work and focus on Torah study and prayer which allows them to tap the light of God and re-awakens them to God’s presence.[22] Note that the Mispar Katan of the word sheker, falsehood, is 6, the number related to nature; while the Mispar Katan of Shabbat is 9, the same as Emet, truth. Shabbat, which allows one to gaze beyond the natural world, is associated with truth.

The alliance between truth and depth perception is expressed by the passage, "Rosh devarcha emet”-“The beginning of Your utterance is truth."[23] What is meant by the ‘beginning of an utterance’? There are two basic elements to speech: the non-verbal thought that one wishes to communicate, and the translation of that thought into language through which it is communicated. The above passage refers to the non-verbal thought which precedes speech and inspires it; the core of a speaker’s communication.[24] Interestingly, listeners commonly fixate on particular peripheral phrases or points made by the speaker and lose sight of the main idea being shared, the ‘truth’ of the speech.

This is a profound metaphor for our experience of our world, created by Divine ‘speech’ – something made explicit in the biblical account of Creation where the expression “And God said” precedes almost every creative act.[25] As human speech consists of non-verbal and verbal elements, Divine speech metaphorically constitutes these as well. The ‘beginning’ of Divine speech refers to God’s ultimate purpose for Creation: the fulfilment of the Torah. The combinations of letters and words of God’s speech, however, create the diversity of objects and events in the world, each a specific combination of letters.[26] One focused on the ‘beginning of the speech’, the Divine intention underlying creation, connects to the Truth of creation. But one allured by specific objects or experiences – cars, houses, honour, lust, etc - loses sight of Truth and is alienated from it.[27] 

This ability to distinguish inner and outer dimensions of objects or events is also indicated by the word ﬡמת which divides into two parts: the letter , and the word מת, meaning death.[28]  The comprises three smaller letters: י (Yud) at its upper right, another י at its bottom left, and a tilted ו (Vav) linking the Yuds together.[29] Since י is numerical value 10 and ו is 6, the three letters comprising the add up to 26, the numerical value of the ineffable Name which the Zohar refers to as the Soul of existence.[30] The thus alludes to the Divine soul, or core, of an entity. The word מת, however, alludes to an entity’s exterior shell or body which loses its meaning or existence if its soul is removed. When is combined with מת, it spells ﬡמת, truth; if removed, however, only מת, death, remains.

Accurate communication:

‘If you add to truth, you subtract from it’
Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 29a

‘Half the truth is a whole lie’
Yiddish Proverb

Accuracy of communication is exemplified in the Torah by Abraham and Jacob who independently -and ironically- emphasized its importance while engaging in deception. As Abraham entered the land of the Philistines, he introduced his wife Sarah as his sister to avoid personal danger. Avimelech, the Philistine king, was attracted to her and brought her to his palace.[31] God, however, appeared to Avimelech commanding him to return Sarah to her husband. After obeying God, Avimelech rebuked Abraham for deceiving him.[32] Abraham responded that in actuality Sarah is his sister. This is because Abraham’s father was Sarah’s grandfather (Abraham married his niece) and to an extent, Torah reckons grandchildren as a grandparent’s children.[33]

Jacob employed a similar type of fib. His mother, Rebecca, instructed him to deceive his father, Isaac, into bestowing him with the ‘firstborn blessings’ intended for Esau, Jacob’s brother. To accomplish this, Jacob needed to pretend he was Esau. Upon standing before his blind father, Isaac asked him, "Are you my first born Esau?" To which Jacob replied, "I am Esau your first born."[34] Our sages clarify that Jacob intended two distinct statements with his reply; the first being, “I am” [I am who I am], and the second, “Esau your first born" [Esau is your first born].[35] Jacob’s statement was thus true, albeit highly ambiguous. It was Isaac’s interpretation of it that was false.

In both instances, our patriarchs found themselves in circumstances that permit lying: Abraham was protecting his own life, concerned that the Philistines would kill him to deliver his wife to their king,[36] and Jacob was instructed by his prophetess mother to act deceitfully.[37] Nevertheless, both patriarchs were careful to make only equivocal statements likely to be misinterpreted by the listeners rather than speaking blatant falsehood. 

Of course in ordinarily circumstances accuracy of speech alone is inadequate, one must be clear as to what one intends to convey through the speech as well. The Talmud tells the case of a lender who brought a borrower before a Bet Din - a Jewish court - and demanded the immediate repayment of his loan. The borrower, however, claimed he had already returned the sum.
The court thus obliged him to make an oath. Having hid the owed amount of money inside the hollow of his cane, the borrower asked the lender to hold it for him while he held the Torah scroll to make the oath. Holy scroll in hand, he proceeded to swear that he already placed the money into the lender’s hand. The lender, enraged by the audacity, snapped the borrower’s cane causing the coin to spill onto the floor. It emerged that the borrower was technically correct: he had indeed placed the money owed into the lender’s hand!
The borrower was clearly a scoundrel, but did he lie under oath?
The Talmud concludes that he did. For not only must the literal meaning of one’s words be true, but also the meaning one intends them to convey.[38]

The Maharal of Prague explains how careful one must be when describing a situation. Even the slightest deviation from truth, he explains, is already classified as falsehood. This notion is intimated by the word Emet. The first letter of Emet, the Aleph, has a numerical value of one, denoting the smallest amount. If the Aleph is removed from the word Emet, the remaining letters spell met - death. Death and falsehood are one and the same, for death involves existence deteriorating into non-existence, just as falsehood transforms existence into non-existence.[39] The message is therefore clear: if even an iota of the truth is missing, it is no longer truth.[40] 

The Maharal further explains the Gemara which associates truth with the letter Tav and falsehood with the letter Shin; Tav being the final letter of Emet while Shin, the first letter of Sheker.[41] Why, he asks, is the Gemara inconsistent in the letters it uses to represent the concepts, using the first letter of one word and the last of the other? Emet, he clarifies, is represented by Tav because truth is the ‘Divine seal’[42]and a seal is impressed at the completion of a document, as the Tav completes the Aleph-Bet. Moreover, the name and shape of the Tav both signify a seal.[43] However, the first letter of Sheker, a Shin, aptly represents falsehood because in the Aleph-Bet it directly neighbours the Tav. This indicates that even the slightest deviation from truth – a movement from the Tav to the letter directly next to it, the Shin - brings one into falsehood.[44]     

[1] Albo, Rabbi Joseph, Sefer HaIkarim, Maamre 2, Perek 27
[2] Schneerson, Y.Y., HaYom Yom, Kehot Publication Society, Sec. 27 Adar I
[3] Rashi on Exodus 2:14
[4] Oratz, Ephraim, ‘And Nothing But The Truth’ Judaica Press, New York, 1990, p.105
[5] Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, Maamare Admeu HaZaken 5565, Kehot Publication Society, p.370
[6] Lowe, Yehuda, Derech Chaim 5:7
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Borenstein, Samuel, Shem MiShmuel, Bereshit I, pp.260 - 261
[10] Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, Tanya, Likute Amarim, Ch.32
[11] Frankel, Victor, Ten Thesis concerning a Human, translated by Rabbi Dr S.D. Cowen, Monash University, Melbourne,  pp.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Zohar III:152a
[14] Zohar I 170b, see also Sha’arei Kedusha, Part One, Gate One.
[15]  Ibid.
[16] Tikunei Zohar, Tikun 30
[17] Zohar III:152a
[18] Tanya, Shaar HaYichud, Ch.4
[19] Midrash Genesis Rabbah 10:9
[20] Schneerson, M.M, Likutei Sichot, Vol.15, p.335 
[21] Ganz, Rabbi Dovid, Tzemach Dovid, Gross Bros. Co., pp.4-5
[22] Ibid.
[23] Psalms 119:160
[24] Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech of Dinov, Bnei Yissaschar, Maamare Chodesh Tishrei, Maamre 1, Sec.10
[25] For instance, “And G-d said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light...And God said, "Let the water that is beneath the heavens gather into one place...” (Genesis 1:3 and 1:9)
[26] Tanya, Gate of Unity and faith, Ch.1 
[27] Schneerson, M.M, In the Paths of Our Fathers, Ch.5 :1
[28] Schneerson, M.M, Likutei Sichot, Vol.2, p.616;  Munk, Eliyahu, The Wisdom in the Hebrew Alphabet, Mesorah Publications, 2001, p.44
[29] Tikunei Zohar, Tikun 40
[30] Tikuei Zohar Introduction II; Sefer Hamaamarim, Basi L’Gani, Vol.1 p.145 
[31] Genesis 20:1-12
[32] Ibid. 20:12
[33] Rashi on Genesis 20:12 citing Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer, Ch.36
[34] Genesis 26:5-27
[35] Rashi on Ibid citing Midrash Tanchuma
[36] Genesis 20:11
[37] Genesis 27:5-16
[38] Babylonian Talmud, Nedarim 25a
[39] Lowe, Rabbi Yehudah, Netivot Olam, Netiv Ha’Emet, Sec. 1
[40] Ibid.
[41] Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 104a
[42]Lowe, Rabbi Yehudah, Netivot Olam, Netiv HaEmet, Sec.1
[43] Ginzburgh, Rabbi Yitzchak, The Hebrew Letters, Gal Einai, pp. 326, 330 and 332
[44]  See fn.143

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