Judaism and Lying

What does Judaism think about lying?

In current events, there has been rioting on the Temple Mount. The Arabs have accused the Jews of planning to destroy the Moslem shrines there by digging underground to make the Mount collapse. In medieval times, Jews were accused of poisoning the wells and causing the Black death. And in modern times, Jews are accused of secretly manipulating the world economies for their own benefit (the famous "Protocols of the Elders of Zion").

That these are all lies is obvious. What is fascinating, is that these lies proved so effective in instigating unspeakable violence. What is even more fascinating, is that the people who became violent felt a need to lie in order to do so.

It is similar to what we see in Iran. On the one hand, the president of Iran threatens the imminent demise of Israel. He dreams of a new Holocaust. On the other, he denies the old Holocaust ever happened. Why this exercise in mental gymnastics? If you hate the Jews, why not just say so? If you want to attack, why do you need to lie in order to do so?

The reason is because, at the end of the day, they are also human beings. No matter how evil, there is something in the very material of the human being that requires him to lie in order to sin. What is it? It is the image of God.

"In God's image (He) created him (man)." Our very material is in God's image. Practically, what does that mean?

Well, the Talmud states that God's signature Is "Truth." Truth is at the very essence of creation. Truth is what allows the world to continue to exist. When the Torah prohibits lying, it does not simply say, "Thou shalt not lie." It says, "Keep far away from a false thing."

It's not enough to not lie, one must be on guard to stay far away from it. It is the very antithesis of the godly life that we are to live.

There is a legend in the Talmud about some very holy sages who took a spiritual journey into the heavenly realms. They were warned to not say "Water, water" when they see the "pure marble". I don't think we know what that mystical marble is, but why is it so terrible if they say "Water, water?"

The answer is, the marble actually is so pure that it looks like water. The sages who saw it would think it is water. Yet it is not, and to call it water is an untruth. The Talmud quotes a verse, "One who speaks falsely cannot stand before Me." Thus, even though they felt it was really water, and felt they were speaking the truth, in fact it was an untruth. Especially when one rises to the heights of heaven, one must be truthful. The standard is much higher.

Thus, man has an intrinsic sense of truth. If we would listen to it all the time, we would never sin. And yet, we have an evil inclination. The evil inclination knows that we cannot violate our basic nature of truth. Therefore, what it does is convince us that truth demands our evil behavior. And how does it atdo that?

With lies. Lies are the way we make falsehood seem to be true, and thus get our nature to allow us to behave sinfully.

Let this be a lesson to all of us. The moment we catch ourselves justifying something, we should think twice and ask ourselves what the honest truth is. In this way we can use our divine nature to guide us to a life of goodness, holiness, and truthful accomplishment.

How to Have a Successful Yom Kippur

  1. Preparation. Take some time to look over the Yom Kippur prayer book. Read the translation. Get to know the atmosphere of the prayers, and when you encounter them in synagogue they will be more meaningful.

  2. Define what you need to correct. Sins are one thing. They are an obvious target for repentance. What is more important are character traits. Things often come as a result of character traits. I remember learning that all sin in the trace to one of three character challenges: jealousy, lust, and pride. Working on one's character is the most important work of Yom Kippur. Being aware of where we get into trouble and why is the first step. Deciding on concrete steps to grow and improve is the next step.

  3. Apologize to God. This refers to all of the sins that relate between man and God. If someone wasn't careful about keeping kosher, they should admit their shortcoming in prayer and decide to improve in the coming year. If someone didn't pray as well as they could have, they should mention this and determined to improve their prayer in the future.

  4. Apologize to one's fellow. Yom Kippur atones for those sins that are directly between man and God. For sins that one has committed to another, one must first obtained the other's forgiveness. Jewish law states that a person should ask forgiveness a maximum of three times. If the other refuses to forgive, one need not ask a fourth time. Nonetheless, if someone asked for forgiveness, we should be forthcoming with it. Nobody should want someone else to be punished on their account. Only after properly asking forgiveness from the other can we then ask God for forgiveness.

An interesting problem is when one has spoken slanderously of another. If the other does not know about it, to tell them in order to apologize might cause more harm than good. In that case, it is best to give a general apology, and not hurt the other person's feelings by sharing what was said. One should, however, seek to undo whatever damage was done by ill considered speech.

  1. Dress appropriately. Create the atmosphere for spirituality. On Yom Kippur, we refrain from wearing leather shoes. It is also appropriate to wear white clothing, if possible. White is the color of purity, and creates an atmosphere of great spirituality.

  2. Eat a proper meal before the fast. Drink adequately, but do not overeat. I have had a Kol Nidre night challenged by a stomach that was unhappy with the way I ate before the fast.

  3. Prepare to be in a good mood. The Divine Presence comes where there is joy. For that reason, Yom Kippur, with all of its solemnity, carries inside a deep joy. Sing along with the Cantor, and let the beauty of the prayers fill your soul. I remember seeing someone so uncomfortable in synagogue that they laughed at every ritual. This is very sad. It may be an effort, but it is so important to open oneself to what is happening in synagogue. Even if you don't attend during the entire year, and don't really know what is going on, make a mental decision to be open to try to sing along, to reading the prayers in English, to saying them with as much sincerity as you can muster.

  4. Maintain the dignity of the day. What you do when you leave the synagogue? How about keeping the television off? Try creating an atmosphere of sanctity and quiet in your home throughout the day. Don't plan to travel or distract yourself with novels or music or anything else. Consider taking a quiet walk, meditating, or reading about self-improvement or the meaning of the day.

  5. Be in synagogue as much as possible. You will be surrounded by people deeply connecting to Yom Kippur. You'll be surrounded by strong Jewish feeling, melody, prayer, and inspiration. Stay after the memorial service for a little bit, if you can. Avoid meaningless conversation. Be present to Yom Kippur for as much of the day as you can, and Yom Kippur will be present in your life for a whole year!

I wish you all and easy fast and a healthy, happy, and successful year. May you be properly sealed in the Book of Life!

Shouldn't Yom Kippur Precede Rosh Hashana?

Well, yes and no. Certainly one should purify oneself before entering the Holy Temple, for example. In any quest, there must come a time of preparation. The High Priest had an elaborate preparatory period before the sublime Yom Kippur Temple service. Nonetheless, Rosh Hashana comes first, because it is the MOST important preparation. Praying for a fixed world is even more important that praying for forgiveness and repenting. How so?

Because without the ideal of Rosh Hashana, our ability to repent and be forgiven is hampered. Rosh Hashana teaches us what our mission in life is, both as a nation and as individuals. It is "To fix the world in God's dominion". Repentance has no power if it does not lead us towards advancing that goal. How can I ever create a painting if I have no idea what one looks like? How can we recreate ourselves through repentance when we have not yet glimpsed our true "selves?"

When we get excited about the world of Rosh Hashana, our repentence becomes focused and urgent. We ask ourselves how we can recreate ourselves to better the world we live in. It's no longer about getting rid of guilt for some mental health reason, but rather preparing ourselves for a holy mission. That's why Rosh Hashana is the ultimate preparation for Yom Kippur.

It is the task of each human being to fix his or her corner of the world. We should not be afraid to dream great dreams about what that world will look like, for only through those dreams will we have a chance of achieving it.

A Shana Tova to one and all!

Confusing the Satan before Rosh Hashana

According to the traditional understanding, the Satan shows up on Rosh Hashana with a list of all our misdeeds wherewith to prosecute us. He bases himself on the daily shofar blowings. When we suddenly stop, he gets confused that perhaps he missed the date of Rosh Hashana. Therefore, he does not show up the next day, which in truth is Rosh Hashana, and cannot, therefore, accuse us of anything.

It's a lovely answer, but following its logic, we are left with more questions. Most importantly, why doesn't the Satan figure this trick out already? Year after year, he falls for it. Strange, no? And why does he bother calculating by the shofar? Why not just Google the date of Rosh Hashana?

There are some other answers out there that are clearer. One is that the Satan bases himself on our reactions and fears. If we are blowing the shofar, we must be nervous. We must be going that extra mile because we've really been bad. That encourages him to accuse us even more. When we suddenly stop on the eve of Rosh Hashana, we exude confidence that we've already repented and atoned, and therefore have nothing to fear. That confidence is what confounds the Satan.

I love this answer, because it is so psychologically true and important. What is notable about Rosh Hashana is the absence of "confessional" prayers and petitions for forgiveness for a list of sins. Instead, we pray for global things, such as peace, prosperity, awareness of God and the advent of the Messiah. We remove the focus from sin and put it on to perfecting the world.

The Satan cannot prosecute us if we are allied with God in dreaming of and working towards a perfect world. We've taken the discussion to a level that the Satan cannot reach. It is similar to dealing with a parking ticket when you're a presidential candidate and you have to go to a nationally televised debate. Compared to that, parking tickets are small and unimportant. We basically "out-league" the Satan starting on the eve of Rosh Hashana.

I believe that this explanation can also explain the "confused date" explanation. The Satan deals in parking tickets. He expects that Rosh Hashana will be the mother of all parking ticket hearings, and builds his files accordingly. (He confuses it with Yom Kippur, when we deal with sin. I could even suggest that the Satan expects that Yom Kippur should precede Rosh Hashanam at least thematically.) When we stop the Shofar on Rosh Hashana eve, we are telling him that we don't deal with parking tickets any more. We're running for World-Fixer, and need to prepare for THAT debate, which the Satan can't even get in to.

That's what it means by him being confused, thinking that he missed Rosh Hashana. He's thinking that, if they stopped blowing the shofar, their sins must have been judged and acquitted already. Beyond that, he has no role.

In truth, though, we DO need to deal with the parking tickets. We do it especially on Yom Kippur. Nonetheless, before we do that we must focus on what's IMPORTANT in life and the world. We focus on the WHY of Judaism, the destiny of our nation, before we deal with the HOW, the scorecard of our personal behavior.

So let us put the clear goal of fixing the world and ourselves before us this Rosh Hashana 5770. Then, towards Yom Kippur, we'll bring this into our personal lives by improving our character and behavior accordingly.

A shana tova, a year of Life, Health, Happiness and Prosperity to you and yours!

Reward and punishment

Firstly, Judaism ABSOLUTELY believes in reward and punishment. And that reward and punishment takes place in the hereafter, for the most part. God is a God of complete and perfect justice, "who taketh not a bribe." Therefore, the bad guys will get their just desserts, as will the good guys get their rewards.

There are all kinds of variations on these themes in the Talmud. There are cases where the mitzvot and good deeds of an absolute evil person are given to the righteous whom he has harmed. And there are cases where one gets credit for having enabled another to do good deeds as well.

It is a complex arrangement, yet it is clear that Judaism believes in life after death and in ultimate reward and punishment.

There is a concept called "Gehinom", which is a form of purification. The Jewish concept of punishment is not eternal damnation. Why should someone be eternally damned if they only transgressed for a lifetime? Rather, there is a period of purification - which can be unpleasant in ways we don't imagine or want to, before we are admitted to the Presence of God in the World to Come.

In this world, however, there is also reward and punishment. It is not absolute, though, as we see eveil people prosper on occasion. The Ramban, a 13th century sage, explains that reward and punishment in this world serve a purpose of maintaining free choice. How so?

If there were no punishment in this world, hardly anyone would be able to resist the temptation to sin. Knowing that there just might be a form of "bolt of lightning" may stay many hands.

If, however, reward and punishment were absolute in this world, with every good deed being rewarded immediately and vice versa, then who would ever sin? Again, no free choice would be possible.

Thus, we are given responsibility and choice. God wants us to choose good willingly, and He keeps the options even for us to truly choose good.