This week’s Torah portion, Vayera, contains four stories: the announcement of Isaac’s birth, Sodom and Gomorrah (it did not go very well for those cities), Isaac’s birth and Ishmael’s subsequent banishment, and the binding of Isaac. Let’s talk about the first story.
God’s messengers arrive to tell Abraham that he is going to have a son. “I will return to you next year, and your wife Sarah shall have a son!” Sarah, who is nearly 90 years old and happens to be listening on the other side of the tent, laughs (that is why Isaac means laughter) and says to herself, “Now that I am withered, am I to have enjoyment with my husband so old?” God of course hears Sarah’s laughter and what she said and angrily declares to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, saying, ‘Shall I in truth bear a child, old as I am?'" (Genesis 18)
The Rabbis of old noticed that God does not accurately report what Sarah said. Sarah had suggested that their infertility was due to Abraham’s age. When repeating her words to Abraham God instead suggests that she blamed herself for their lack of children.
The Rabbis spin lessons and values from God’s apparent mistaken retelling. It can’t possibly be that God did not hear her words correctly. They reasoned, it must instead be that God wanted to protect Abraham and Sarah’s relationship and so decided that it would be better to lie than inform Abraham of Sarah’s true thoughts.
In Judaism’s hierarchy of values truth takes second place to peace. Our tradition counsels: it is better to lie than destroy shalom bayit, peace in the home. Truth can be sacrificed for the sake of peace.
The Talmud debates this idea and discusses the question of whether or not you should tell an ugly bride that she is beautiful on her wedding day. Rabbi Shammai, who was known for his zealous commitment to principle whatever the cost, says, “Tell her the truth.” Hillel says instead, “Tell every bride she is beautiful.” Jewish law follows Hillel. He reasoned that she is beautiful in her groom’s eyes so it does not really matter what every one else thinks. On the wedding day every bride is beautiful.
Hillel always seemed to find a way to be as inclusive and welcoming as possible. Shammai on the other hand probably did not get to officiate at too many weddings and remained alone with his principles.
Judaism wants us to be at one with others, and with the community. This is why peace is valued more than truth. I often think about this as I watch the many people encouraged by TV hosts to confess and share their most intimate secrets. These truths end up destroying friendships and relationships. It makes for great drama and to some great TV, but it also makes for damaged and broken communities.
Truth does not always set you free. Sometimes it leaves you alone. This is Judaism’s counsel. Beware of the truths you share. Even God sometimes lies to keep the peace. And shalom is always the most precious gift of all.