Seventy Faces of Torah Rabbi Lev

What’s Truth Got to Do With It?

Rabbi Lev Meirowitz NelsonParshat VaEra, Exodus 6:2-9:35

A colleague calls me to vent: A congregant had told her angrily that she should not talk about climate change in her sermons, because climate change isn’t real.

My mother-in-law tells us about a client who says that he voted for Donald Trump because Hillary Clinton is one of the worst mass murderers in history.

2016 brought America’s public discourse to a new, dangerous place. We can and will certainly hold different values, policy preferences, and visions for our future while remaining a single society—these are the mahlokot l’shem shamayim, debates for the sake of heaven, of which Jewish tradition is so fond. But if we each live in our own reality, with different facts and fundamental truths, how can we even talk with each other? How can we live together in the same country, in a single universe of shared discourse?

Is there a way that Torah can help us claw our way back to firmer ground?

Parshat VaEra offers us one potential path. Instructing Moses regarding the first plague, God tells him to meet Pharaoh early in the morning by the river. The great biblical commentator Rashi famously explains that Pharaoh would go to the Nile to relieve himself, maintaining the appearance that he was a god with no human needs (Exodus7:15). The Egyptian propaganda machine has its people convinced, and perhaps the Israelites too, but God knows the truth. By challenging Pharaoh in a private moment, God sends a message: you don’t fool Me. This is your chance to repent before I embarrass you publicly.

It doesn’t seem to bother Rashi that, five verses later, we read that Pharaoh’s servants were nearby, watching. Were these his inner circle, who helped perpetuate the false image? Might we look to them for help, like the magicians who acknowledged God long before Pharaoh did, as we will see later in the parasha, in Exodus 8:15 and 9:11?

The whole enterprise of confronting lies is so fraught; I bring my facts, you bring yours, and then what? But we must refuse to fall into the pit of false equivalency: All claims are not equally founded or unfounded. Some positions are more truthful and fact-based than others; some online articles (biased or not) report real news, and others offer pseudo-reporting that is simply false. The denial of basic scientific facts on climate change, while not the same as fake news, also threatens our common sense of some shared reality. This sense was further undermined through the recent use, by an advisor to the President, of the startling term “alternative facts” to refer to wholly unsubstantiated (and indeed completely untrue) claims by another member of the Administration, about events that had taken place less than 48 hours before.

How do we find common ground to stand on in pursuit of “truth”? Or perhaps we should start with a more fundamental question: Why do we actually need “truth”?

The prophet Micah closes his book with the verse, “Give truth to Jacob, lovingkindness [chesed] to Abraham, as You swore to our ancestors from days of old” (Micah 7:20). This verse was a key source for the medieval kabbalists. In their system of sefirot, the 10 aspects of the divinity humans can know and encounter, the quality of Truth and the figure Jacob are each associated with the Holy Blessed One, a name and aspect of God embodying God’s power as King. It mediates between Abraham/Lovingkindness and Isaac/Power, bring these opposing forces into balanced union. But what does it mean to give truth to Jacob, and what is the connection of this idea to the chesed given to Abraham?

Two medieval commentators offer conflicting interpretations. Don Isaac Abravanel, the 15th-century Portuguese rabbi, writes, “When God gives Truth to Jacob—by fulfilling the promise of redemption—then [God] will also be doing chesed to Abraham, whose descendants—the Ashurim, children of Keturah, and the Ishmaelites—will accept God’s Torah and live in peace with Israel.” It’s unclear whether we should find this inspiring or chilling. Does a redeemed world lead everyone to recognize common, shared truths, enabling them to live in harmony? Or is everyone compelled to subordinate themselves to a single truth—God’s/ours—and live restlessly under a sort of Jewish hegemony? Is truth the enabler of love, or its enforcer?

Rabbi David Kimchi (a 12th- and 13th-century French thinker, also known as the Radak) reads the verse almost the other way around. The chesed to Abraham, in his view, was the original promise of covenant and land. The truth for Jacob and his sons is the follow-through, the fulfillment of the promise. For Kimchi, truth is reliability. We might say that the realization of founding ideals and values, and consistency with those ideals and values, is what constitutes truth.

This verse from Micah takes on another meaning when we consider it in its liturgical context. It appears in the haftarot, the prophetic readings, for Shabbat Shuva (between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur), and again during the afternoon Mincha service on Yom Kippur. In those contexts, truth in the form of brutally honest self-examination is required to do teshuvah. We may not like the truth of who we have become or how we have behaved, but we cannot make any progress until we acknowledge it. Having done that, we hope to be accepted and forgiven by virtue of God’s chesed for us. (And perhaps, experiencing that lovingkindness even before we are forgiven is necessary for us to bear taking such an honest look at ourselves.)

In our political discourse, it seems that all sides have suffered from an overconfidence that has blinded them to perspectives they do not share but that also contain some truth. As in the realm of teshuvah, we should hold ourselves to the same standards to which we hold our opponents. We may need to cultivate the quality of chesed—which can also be translated as covenantal love, the love between those who have chosen to be bound together—in order to hear the truth that is expressed by those with whom we are nevertheless in fundamental disagreement. Our verse is also part of the daily Shacharit, or morning service. For those who recite it daily, it serves as a regular reminder that truth and love are somehow inextricable.

By the end of next week’s parashah, Egyptian society is fractured and destroyed, largely because its leader believed his own propaganda over facts as plain as day—and the population was too willing to go along. Our society faces threats less dramatic but no less dangerous in the long run. Truth and chesed are two of the best tools we have to stand against the rule of lies, if we are willing to let the full power of those tools flourish.

Rabbi Lev Meirowitz Nelson is Director of Education at T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. He holds rabbinic ordination from Hebrew College, where he was a Wexner Graduate Fellow, and a BA in Geology from Brown University. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, Eliana, and their children.


Interested in a possible career in the rabbinate? Read Rabbi Dan Judson’s article “Jewish Lessons on Meaningful Work.“ Rabbi Judson teaches history, oversees the professional development program, and serves as the placement director for the Hebrew College Rabbinical School. He has a PhD in Jewish history from Brandeis University.

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