Truth or Consequences – Yitro 5780

D'var Torah | Exodus

Donald Trump’s presidency has fostered a cottage industry of fact checking. No president in the history of the United States – probably no politician in world history – has been caught deceiving and lying as frequently as Trump. Only in his third year of his four-year term, journalist Daniel Dale in Canada as well as The Washington Post have diligently tracked more than ten thousand untruths, and the numbers of lies is growing geometrically.


To be sure, President Trump is not the first leader to resort to lying. Neither is he the trigger of a spate of lying that has infected our culture, as ably analyzed by Michiko Kakutami in her best-selling book, The Death of Truth. Trump is more a symptom than a cause. It is also unwise to suggest that the sheer number of lies is proof of wickedness. Some lies are worse than others. And many of Trump’s lies are of a type that would be termed “self-serving.” There are lies whose only purpose is to inflate the ego of the liar. These are lies about popularity or wealth or achievements. Lying to boost one’s stature is a strategy at least five hundred years old. Niccolo Machiavelli advocated lying if it would keep the lying Prince in power.


In contrast, the Torah teaches that supreme honesty is a requirement for any public servant. Among the characteristics of every subordinate to Moses is truthfulness (Exodus 18:21). Rabbi Joseph Bekhor Shor, one of the premiere exegetes of the Middle Ages, interprets this to mean that these men must abhor hypocrisy and fabrications and rely exclusively on the truth. To Bekhor Shor, motives make no difference. It does not matter whether an untruth is told for self-aggrandizement and there are no victims who suffer as a result. In lying, truth itself is the victim. Hence, there is no distinction in lies at all.


Pity that there are many people who dismiss this brand of truthfulness in all its purity. They would happily forgive the liar if they share his agenda or support his views. But once compromised, truth cannot be easily recovered. The danger lies not in the size of the deception or in its purpose. The danger lies in so perverting the truth that dishonesty is normalized and all trust is broken. The commentary of Bekhor Shor is thus particularly sharp.


Words to Live By

What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you pales in comparison to what lies inside you.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

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