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Vayera and God's Lies

This week’s Torah portion, Vayera, contains four stories: the announcement of Isaac’s birth, Sodom and Gomorrah (it did not go well for those cities), Isaac’s birth and Ishmael’s subsequent banishment, and the binding of Isaac. Let’s examine 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 ancient Rabbis notice that God does not accurately report what Sarah says and what is the source of her laughter. Sarah suggests that their infertility was due to Abraham’s age. (No Viagra jokes please.) When God repeats her words to Abraham, God instead suggests that she blames 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 reason: 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 and her doubts about his virility.

In Judaism’s hierarchy of values truth takes second place to peace. That may be a surprising lesson, but our tradition counsels that peace is the highest value. It draws a lesson from this very story: 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 offers the illustration of whether or not you should tell an ugly bride that she is beautiful on her wedding day. (This of course is only a theoretical debate for there could never be such an occurrence.) 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 reasons that she is beautiful in her groom’s eyes so it does not really matter what anyone 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 invited to officiate at too many weddings and remained alone with his principles.

Judaism wants us to be at one with others, to stand with the community. This is why peace is valued more than truth. I often think about this when I occasionally watch reality TV shows where guests are encouraged to share their most intimate secrets or hosts harshly criticize their guests. “You’re chopped!” they scream. These truths end up destroying friendships and relationships. It might makes for great entertainment and in many people’s eyes great TV, but it also makes for damaged relationships and broken communities.

Truth does not always set you free. Sometimes it leaves you alone and by yourself.

This is one of Judaism’s most enduring lessons. Beware of the truths you share. Even God sometimes lies to keep the peace.

Shalom is indeed the most precious gift of all. That is why so many of our prayers conclude with the blessing of peace.