Rosh HaShanah Sermon 5778 by Rabbi Joel M. Mosbacher

5778 - Can we Handle the Truth?

Rosh Hashanah Morning - September 21, 2017


Did you know that the Atlantic ocean is the largest ocean in the world? We’ll come back to that in a minute.


Folks, we have a lot to repent for at this time of year. That’s why, I think, we’ve been given 10 long days to reflect on our actions-- to make a list of where we’ve missed the mark, and then to actually repent-- it takes time and effort. But is it possible  that we have one less thing to repent for this year than last?
We’re going to beat our chests over and over on Yom Kippur with a prayer called ashamnu-- which means, “we have sinned.” The prayer itself is an alphabetical acrostic; our old machzor called it an alphabet of woe. As part of my preparation for these intense and powerful days, I decided to stop and actually look at the words:

 

Ashamnu– we have trespassed; 
Bagadnu – we have dealt treacherously; 
Gazalnu – we have robbed; 
Dibarnu dofi – we have spoken slander; 
He’evinu –we have acted perversely; 
V’hirshanu – we have done wrong; 
Zadnu – we have acted presumptuously; 
Hamasnu – we have done violence. 
And then we get to the ninth sin on the list: 
Tafalnu sheker. We have dealt in lies.

The list goes on to the end of the Hebrew alphabet. But as I have been taking stock of my own soul these past few weeks, I got stuck on the Hebrew letter “tet.” Tafalnu sheker, and how that sin might just be emblematic of the year 5777 now ended.

As far as I can tell, this is the only sin listed in Ashamnu that is also listed with the same word in the 10 Commandments. The 9th sin in our alphabetical list is interestingly parallel to the 9th Commandment in the Torah: lo ta’aneh b’rayecha ayd shacker-- literally, “don’t be a lying witness against your neighbor.”

This ethic-- to tell the truth-- was drilled into me not only by my Judaism, but also by my parents. My own sons know that, almost worse than anything they might do wrong, is for them to lie to us about it. You know the Watergate-era quote-- “It’s not the crime, it’s the cover up”?

To watch the news these days though, to follow all the Twitters, it seems that there may be good news! It’s possible that we don’t have to repent for this sin this year. Truth, it seems, is passe. This season, lying is the new truth,
especially when each repetition comes with more volume and more exclamation points, with each retweet and each “like” and “share.”  The Jewish year now ended was, among other things, the year of fake news, of alternative facts. In that spirit, perhaps we don’t need to repent for our lies, because it feels like truth has been so  deeply devalued in American society. 

And yet, we still have this sin in our machzor. So we have to ask ourselves as we do our self-evaluation as individuals, as a community, and as a nation: Is it time to reform our still new high holiday prayer book? Can we skip this sin, or edit it out? 

Or, perhaps a better question: what might Judaism have to teach us about truth, and whether telling a lie is even a thing any more?

Witnesses in a court of law are sworn in by being asked: do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth? This is a useful frame for us to use as we consider the kinds of truths and lies we tell as humans. Most of the time, I pray, we do what our parents taught us: we tell the whole truth, and nothing but. At other times, we lie. Sometimes, we tell small lies, little white lies. In these situations, It might be said that we tell nothing but the truth, but not the whole truth. And then, at  other times, we obfuscate and twist words, or we tell flat-out, merciless lies- lies that hurt or bring harm. In this case, we neither tell the truth, nor the whole truth, nor nothing but the truth.

I’m guessing that each of us can think back on moments from the past year when we lied in various ways: we lied frivolously; we lied by omitting key facts; we lied by cherry-picking the facts or statistics that served our argument; we lied by twisting words or by exaggerating;  we flat-out lied in an effort to hurt another person. 

We said we had done our homework. We called in sick when, in fact, we just won the Hamilton lottery. 
When the barista asked us for our name, we said, “Lebron” or “Paris.”
We said we were doing the speed limit. We didn’t say everything that we were thinking. We said we disclosed everything we were supposed to on our taxes.
We said, “It wasn’t my fault.” We said, “I did not cheat.”
We said we were younger than we are.
We said we were older than we are.
We said, “I was listening.”
Let’s look at examples of these different truths and lies by putting on our  Jewish lenses.

In a few moments in our service, we will read a passage from the Torah that I believe to be one of the most haunting stories I have ever read- a story from the book of Genesis in which God calls Abraham to take his son Isaac to a mountain and offer him there as a sacrifice. 

In the beginning of the story, after Abraham and Isaac travel to the foot of Mt. Moriah, they take leave of their servants and begin their ascent to the mountain’s top. Isaac carries the wood for the burnt offering, and Abraham carries a fire stone and a large knife. Along the way, Isaac asks a perfectly logical question, “Avi! Dad! Here is the wood, the knife, and the flint, but where is the lamb for the sacrifice?” 

We can imagine that Isaac’s question was difficult for Abraham to answer. “Where is the lamb for the sacrifice?” We can almost hear the long pause, the deep breath Abraham takes before he replies, “God will provide the lamb for the slaughter, my son.” Is Abraham’s answer a lie? I guess it depends on what Abraham means when he says, “God will provide." Does Abraham view Isaac as the lamb for slaughter? 

If so, the rabbis of our tradition argue, when Abraham responds to Isaac, he is answering truthfully. God instructed Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, so, according to Abraham, Isaac is the lamb for the slaughter.
 
The problem is that, as readers, we know that Isaac does not understand the implications of Abraham’s reply. Abraham’s words are missing an integral component. Abraham tells the truth, but not the whole truth. Why does he do that?

In the first century CE, Rabbis Shammai and Hillel engaged in a debate about whether it is ever okay to lie. Shammai argues for the whole truth, all the time. Hillel argues for truth tempered by mercy. The object example they use is fascinating: Hillel says, “The bride is always beautiful.” Shammai says to Hillel: But doesn’t the Torah teach us not to lie? What if the bride isn’t actually that beautiful? The sages, ultimately agreeing with Hillel as they usually do, say, “It should always be the disposition of a person to be pleasant with people.” [Indeed, they argue, we should always say that the bride is beautiful.]

Perhaps this was what Abraham was doing when Isaac asked him where the lamb was for the slaughter; Abraham didn’t want to scare his son, so from a place of compassion, he didn’t tell the whole truth. The bride is always beautiful. The rabbis call this kind of truth chesed shel emet-- truth balanced with mercy.

To illustrate the second kind of lie we tell, I want to bring a text that I admit is a bit complicated, so bear with me. Rabbi Meshullam Feivish of Zabriza, an 18th century Chassidic master, taught that you can take the Hebrew word for a crown that might be worn by a king or queen-- keter-- and rearrange the same letters to say karet- meaning, a person who is cut off from their community. Similarly, you can take the Hebrew word for simple, as in the simple child on Passover-- tam-- and switch the letters so that it now reads met, meaning death. So, too, Reb Meshulam notes that you can take the word for connection --kesher-- and turn it into sheker-- lies.

In this way, he teaches, we can reverse any truth. I feel like this 18th century rabbi is speaking to us when he implores us to remember the teaching of the prophet Isaiah,  “Woe unto them that call evil good and good evil” (Isaiah 5:20). 

In our own lives, we know how to twist words-- our own words, and those of others. This is nothing new; people were doing this in the 18th century when Reb Meshullam was teaching, and that’s why he had to implore his community not to traffic in linguistic trickery. It was true in Isaiah’s time in the 8th century BCE; that’s why Isaiah cursed those who would mix good and evil as if they were interchangeable. 

There are all sorts of lies we tell as human beings. Some seem more harmless than others. 

But I submit for your consideration that the 9th sin in our alphabet of woe is speaking to something far more insidious than when we tell the dentist we’ve been flossing religiously when we know and she knows we haven’t.
Tafalnu sheker. Hard to precisely translate, it means something like we trafficked in lies. We dealt in lies.

Why is that so bad, exactly? What happens when we deal in lies? Well, it seems, scientific research is coming around to confirm something Isaiah knew 2800 years ago. Let’s take a look at the science behind tafalnu sheker.
The Atlantic Ocean is the largest ocean on the planet. 

What happens when a lie hits your brain-- say, the lie I just told you? (It’s actually the Pacific Ocean that is largest body of water on the planet, for the record.) 

Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert argued more than 20 years ago that our brains see a lie in two steps. First, even just briefly, we hold the lie as true: Gilbert's research suggests that we must first accept something in order to understand it. For instance, if someone were to tell us that there had been serious voter fraud in Virginia during the presidential election, we must for a fraction of a second accept that fraud did, in fact, take place. Only then do our brains take the second step, either completing the mental certification process (yes, there was fraud!) or rejecting it (what? no way). 

Unfortunately, while the first step is a natural part of thinking—it happens automatically and effortlessly—the second step can be easily disrupted. It takes work: We must actively choose to accept or reject each statement we hear. In certain circumstances, that verification simply fails to take place. As Gilbert writes, human minds, “when faced with shortages of time, energy, or conclusive evidence, may fail to unaccept the ideas that they involuntarily accept during comprehension.”

Our brains are particularly ill-equipped to deal with lies when they come not singly but in a constant stream. When we are overwhelmed with false, or potentially false, statements, our brains pretty quickly become so overworked that we stop trying to sift through everything. 

That’s the best definition I’ve found yet of tafalnu sheker. Scientists call it cognitive load— a pattern of lies that overburdens our limited cognitive resources. It doesn’t matter how implausible the statements are; throw out enough of them, and people will inevitably absorb some. Eventually, without quite realizing it, our brains just give up trying to figure out what is true.

If you have a particular untruth you want to propagate, Gilbert says, simply state the lie, over and over. As it turns out, sheer repetition of the same untruth can eventually mark it as true in our heads. It’s an effect known as illusory truth, first discovered by scientists in the 1970s. In its original demonstration, a group of psychologists had people rate statements as true or false on three different occasions over a two-week period. Some of the statements appeared only once, while others were repeated. The repeated statements were far more likely to be judged as true the second and third time they appeared— regardless of their actual validity. 

To use an example that some of us might relate to, if you consistently tell yourself that you just don’t have time to work out, and thus internalize that truth, your brain legitimately can’t comprehend why the doctor is increasingly worried about your cholesterol. 

On a larger scale, the scariest thing about 5777 might have been that our nation’s leader and his administration have mercilessly lied again and again and again, and called their lies truth, and called truth lies. Over and over again. Daily. Repeatedly. With increasing emphasis. Hundreds of times publically over the course of nine months.

And I submit to you today that, like in George Orwell’s 1984, those pervasive, relentlessly repeated lies can overload our brains until we begin to think that telling the truth doesn’t matter, that we can get away with lies, that lying to the people in our lives isn’t such a big deal. But unlike with Abraham or Hillel, there is no mercy in these lies, no compassion. These are not “every bride is beautiful” lies. These lies are much more serious, much more weighty.

It’s neither breaking news nor alternative facts to say that all people lie. That’s why the 10 commandments had to attempt to legislate it out of our behavior. That’s why our parents have to tell us not to lie over and over again. And since politicians are people, we shouldn’t be surprised that all politicians lie. We all sin with lies of omission and lies of commission. 

Let me also be clear. We can argue over facts. I took a 3 credit course at the University of Wisconsin unapologetically entitled, “How to Lie with Statistics.” We can differ over the meaning of words, and what the implications of those meanings are. We can legitimately disagree over the proper size of government, just as doctors apparently may disagree from day to day over the health benefits or detriments of drinking alcohol or coffee. 

But tafalnu sheker has to do with the extent to which we traffic in lies, deal in lies, repeat lies with the intent to harm, to deceive, to hurt, to subvert the legitimacy of debate or disagreement. In other words, lies without mercy.

This is the high bar Judaism sets up for us: not only, “tell the truth,” but “tell the truth while holding on to mercy.” Psalm 85 says, chesed v’emet nifgashu; let mercy and truth meet. It sounds good in theory, but it can be really difficult in practice.

A person commits a crime. Our system of laws says they should be punished. Both of those statements are true. How should they be punished? That’s a question of mercy. People of good will can disagree about how much mercy should play into a sentencing hearings. 

Sometimes, the truth of a situation is clear.
 
We either did or did not make our bed. 

There is gravity.
 
Light is both a wave and a particle.  

These are facts. Emet. Those who dispute them simply don’t accept these facts. But there is no mercy in disputing them.

Sometimes, we find a balance of truth and mercy. 

We tell our buddy that their rock band sounds great, even when we privately wish we had brought ear plugs.

We tell a White Sox fan that their team has as good a chance as any to win the World Series, even when we know that might take 88 years.

This is what emet and chesed, what truth and mercy, look like.

And then there are moments when our words don’t meet either the standard of emet or chesed; they are neither truthful nor merciful.

Distracted driving kills approximately 9 people and injures 1000 every day. When we lie to ourselves, to our spouses, or to police officers by insisting that we weren’t distracted when we were driving while using our cell phones, we tell a lie that puts lives at risk. Tafalnu sheker.

Cheating is wrong. When we cheat on a test, on our taxes, or on our partners, and then consistently lie about it, there is no chesed or emet in this situation. When we tell fundamental, merciless lies to the people in our lives, we fail twice on the test of tafalnu sheker.

What is true on a personal and interpersonal level is also true on a national scale. Have you noticed that the language of our machzor has us repent in the collective- WE have trafficked in lies? This raises the stakes even higher, because it suggests that we are responsible for the misdeeds of others. The message is one of collective responsibility;  if, on these days, we are holding ourselves to account, we must also hold others to account, including those we elect.

Our climate is changing, and perpetuating the lie that it is not is already putting lives at risk, as we see its affects in our country and around the world. This lie is neither chesed nor emet. It’s neither merciful or truthful. Tafalnu sheker.

All people deserve to be treated with dignity, and suggesting that that perpetrators and victims of anti-semitism or racism  share equal blame for those hateful acts is not chesed or emet. Tafalnu sheker.

Refugees to this country are in fact vetted for up to 2 years, and suggesting otherwise leads Americans to wrongly mistrust people who are seeking nothing more than safety on our shores. Tafalnu sheker.

It’s hard to be both truthful and merciful; we are, I believe, constantly engaged in a battle on a personal, communal, and national level to find the right balance of these two values. 

But when we are neither truthful nor merciful, it’s a double whammy of woe.

Judaism affirms that truth still matters, and so does mercy, even in a world that can be harsh and unkind. On these high holidays, we are called upon to come to terms with when we met those high standards, and when we did not. 

We’ve got work to do. We have until the gates close on Yom Kippur to do that work, so let’s not wait another minute. Let’s face up to our lies, to our half-truths, and worse, to the damage we do to the cause of truth when we tell lies, and then defend them, and then repeat them. Tafalnu sheker. 

Hold on to truth, the Ashamnu prayer begs us. Fight against cognitive load. Traffic no more in lies.  And take responsibility to demand truth even, perhaps especially, in a time and place when there are those for whom truth is illusory. 

On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed. What will we, as individuals, as a congregation, and as a nation, write in our books in 5778? Can we handle the truth, with a side of mercy?

Keyn yehi ratzon.