Monday, November 21, 2016

The ring of truth: cohesion, recollection, resonance


“Words of truth are easily recognized”
                                       Babylonian Talmud Sotah 9b

When deciding whether to create Adam, G-d ‘sought counsel’ from the heavenly court. The court polarised: Kindness favoured Adam’s existence; Truth opposed; Righteousness asserted, ‘Create him’, while Peace objected. To form a majority in favour of Adam’s creation, G-d excluded Truth from the debate.[1] 

Why, asked the Kotzker Rebbe, did G-d not exclude Peace instead of Truth? He answered, since ‘words of Truth are easily recognized’, had Truth remained in the debate it would have outweighed the opposing majority!”[2]

Indeed, why are ‘words of truth easily recognized’? What gives truth the power to outweigh a majority?  


 “Truth is as light to the eyes”
    Tosefet Lamivchar 35 

“...when two Biblical passages contradict each other, the meaning is determined by a third verse which reconciles them”
Sifra, Introduction

 Truth causes disjointed or contradictory pieces of information to snap cohesively together.[3] The following analogy illustrates this idea most simply: 
Three people walking together in the dark bumped into an object and began arguing about its identity. One claimed it was a whip; another was certain it was a post, and the last was adamant it was a hose. Puzzled by their conflicting testimonies, they returned to the place of the mysterious object, torch in hand. They discovered the object was an elephant. Instantly, it became clear how all three varying opinions were formed: the first person bumped into the elephant’s tail, the second, into its legs, and the third, its trunk. With the complete truth, everything fitted neatly into place. 

 One notable example in the Torah of truth bringing cohesion is Joseph’s interpretation of his fellow prisoners’ dreams. Noticing that Pharaoh’s chief cupbearer and baker were distressed, Joseph asked what was troubling them. They replied that they were confused by the obscure and fragmented symbolism of their dreams the previous night. After Joseph interpreted the chief cupbearer’s dream, the chief baker, “saw how good he [Joseph] had interpreted.”[4] What does the word ‘good’ mean in this context? The first time ‘good’ is used in the Torah is in reference to the creation of light where, “...G-d saw that the light is good.”[5] What is the connection between light and good? The Maharal explains why the Hebrew word for evening is ‘erev’, and the Hebrew word for morning is ‘boker’. With sunset, the boundaries between objects become blurred, making it difficult to distinguish one object from another, or to perceive exact locations. Confusion and insecurity reign. The word erev, which connotes a mixing, reflects this confused state. With morning light, however, the ability to discern objects is restored. The Hebrew word boker aptly denotes discernment and clarity.[6] Light is therefore seen as ‘good’ because it engenders clarity and coherence. Accordingly, when the chief baker described Joseph’s interpretation as ‘good’, it was because he observed the interpretation as coalescing the chaotic dream images into a cohesive whole.[7]

Incidentally, the term ‘saw’ precedes the term ‘good’ in both the Pasuk  mentioned above regarding Hashem’s creation, and the chief baker’s comment on Yosef’s dream interpretation.[8] How is vision related to “good”? One of the differences between hearing and seeing is that one hears sounds in a temporal sequence, note after note or word after word, while sight allows one to perceive many details simultaneously. When observing a painting, one does not gaze at one brush stroke at a time and gradually build up an impression of the image. Rather, the instant one looks at the painting, it can be perceived in its entirety. Hence, sight provides a sense of wholeness, cohesion, and clarity; similar to our interpretation of the term ‘good’. 

The coherence produced by the revelation of truth is suggested in the word for truth, מתא, itself. The letters of the word are as distant from each other as possible in the Aleph-Betא and ת are at opposite ends, while מ, in the middle, is equidistant from them both. In the word מתא, however, all three letters combine, depicting the mental coherence experienced by the revelation of truth, where disjointed bits of information snap neatly into place.    


“...lest you forget the things which your eyes have seen...the day you stood before the Lord your God at Chorev [Sinai]”
Deuteronomy 16:3

 The Talmud relates that, while in the womb, a foetus is taught the entire Torah. At birth, however, an angel slaps it above the upper lip,[9] causing it to forget the Torah it learnt.[10] Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech of Dinov points out the paradox: if G-d causes us to forget the Torah at birth, why does He teach it to us in the first place? And if G-d instructs us to learn Torah - evident in the mitzvah to learn Torah - why does He cause us to forget it?   Rabbi Elimelech explains that G-d has two related considerations. He desires that people exercise free choice in learning and practising Torah so He can reward them for their accomplishments. He thus makes people forget the Torah at birth - so they are required to seek it out themselves. However, G-d also knows that, [as fish cannot escape the water and fly], a coarse earthly human cannot properly grasp the heavenly wisdom of Torah without assistance. G-d thus imbues the foetus with Torah, making it a part of the person, which he can later relate to and access during his time on earth if he so chooses.[11]

In short: the Torah taught in the womb provides one with the ability to relate to Torah in this world. Yet, it is still up to each individual to recapture the Torah and learn it independently, bringing it out from the subconscious into everyday practice. This process implies that exposure to truth is not about discovery but recovery.  In learning a truth one merely remembers what he forgot at birth.[12] It is the sense of recollection that explains why truth tends to ‘ring true’. 


“Words that come from the heart enter the heart”
Moshe Ibn Ezra, Shirat Yisrael

“And they [Jacob’s sons] told him [Jacob], ‘Josef is still alive! He is the ruler of all Egypt.’ But his [Jacob’s] heart became numb, and he did not believe them.”[13] The Midrash comments, “Such is a liar’s fate: even when telling the truth, he is not believed.”[14] Jacob did not believe his sons because they had previously lied to him, stating that Joseph was dead, when in reality he was only sold into slavery.  In contrast, when Delilah asked Samson to disclose the secret of his superhuman strength, he lied to her a few times before stating the truth, yet Delilah still knew when his words were genuine.[15] Explaining how she knew, the Talmud comments, “Nikarim divrei emet – Words of truth are easily recognised.”[16]

Why was Jacob unable to discern the truth in his son’s words while Delilah recognised the truth in Samson’s? And how do we reconcile the axiom, “A liar, even when telling the truth is not believed” with, “Words of truth are easily recognised”?[17] There are two types of falsehood; Sheker and Badai Sheker refers to a situation where a person knows he is lying, whereas Badai refers to a person who mistakenly thinks he is correct. Jacob’s son’s engaged in Badai. They convened a court of law which found Josef guilty of treason and deserving of capital punishment.[18] To avoid killing him themselves they sold Joseph into slavery, assuming G-d would complete the sentence by ensuring his death. When they informed Jacob that Josef had been killed, they really believed it and - their words emanated from their hearts. Therefore, when they later told the truth about Josef, though they appeared sincere, Jacob did not believe them, for they had already shown a predisposition for false beliefs. Samson, however, spoke Sheker when attempting to mislead Delilah; he knew he was lying to her. Therefore, when he finally told the truth with transparency and sincerity she recognised it. 

Another incident in the Torah highlighting the resonance of truth involves Judah approaching his brother Joseph, (then the viceroy of Egypt), in an attempt to exonerate his family.[19] The usual protocol when addressing the viceroy was for a subject to speak to an interpreter, who then relayed the message to the viceroy. Judah, however, requested permission to speak to Joseph directly.[20] Why was this so important to him? Judah understood that words issued from the heart are recognised as genuine because they resonate with the listener. He therefore sought to address Joseph directly, to impress upon him the sincerity of his words. Had he communicated through an interpreter, this resonance of truth might have been lost.[21]

A more contemporary incident involving Rabbi Yisrael Meyer Kagan, the Chafetz Chaim, also demonstrates how sincerity ‘rings true’ and can influence authority. In the late 1800’s, the Polish government prohibited shechita, the ritual slaughter of animals. This rule made it almost impossible for Jews to eat meat without risking severe punishment. On behalf of Polish Jewry, the Chafetz Chaim met with a Polish official in an attempt to have the ban retracted. He pleaded passionately in Yiddish about the impact of the restriction on Poland’s Jews. When he finished speaking, the interpreter began to translate the Rabbi’s Yiddish into Polish. However, the official abruptly stopped him, saying, “I have heard enough; I need no translation!” The official was so moved by the sincerity of the Chafetz Chaim’s voice, he agreed to help lift the band, despite not understanding what had been said.

[1] Midrash Genesis Rabbah 8:5
[2] Oratz, Ephraim, ‘And Nothing But The Truth’ Judaica Press, New York, 1990, pp.131-132
[3]Rashi on Sotah 9b 
[4] Genesis 40:16
[5] Genesis 1:4
[6] Nachmonides on Genesis; Lowe, Rabbi Yehuda, Gevurot Hashem 
[7] Jacob refers to Joseph’s talent when he calls him ‘Ben Poret.’ The letters of ‘Poret’ can be rearranged to spell both ‘Tofer’, meaning to stitch together, and ‘Poter’, dream interpreter, for revealing dream content depends on the ability to stitch together fragmented dream images. Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, Maamarei Admur Hazaken 5565, p.196
[8] Similarly, when Moses is born the verse states, “They saw that he was good” (Exodus 2:2); again connecting vision with good. Rashi commenting on the word ‘good’ states that when Moses was born his home filled with light (Based on Babylonian Talmud Sotah 12a). 
[9]  I.e.The infants first nasal inhalation; Maharal, Gevurot Hashem, Sec.28
[10] Tanchuma, Pikudei, Sec.3; Babylonian Talmud Niddah 30b
[11] Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech of Divov, Bnei Yisaschar, Maamre Chodesh Sivan, Maamre 1 Sec. 7 
[12] Tikkunei Zohar, Tikun 70 
[13] Genesis 45:26
[14] Midrash Genesis Rabbah 94:3 
[15] Shoftim  16:18
[16] Babylonian Talmud Sotah 9b
[17] This question, and the following answer, are  adapted from an essay by rabbi Yochanan Zweig, ‘Liar, Liar’, posted on  
[18] Seforno 37:25
[19] Genesis 44:18
[20] Ibid.
[21] Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, Kedushat Levi, Parshat VaYigash

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