Sunday, January 22, 2017

Honesty vs. Lying: Rosh Hashanah Morning 5777

This sermon was delivered on October 3rd, 2016 during the Jewish Congregation of Kinnelon's Rosh Hashanah Morning Service, ahead of the election of the 45th president of the United States on November 8th. After the January 21st White House press briefing and the January 22nd Meet The Press interview claiming "Alternative Facts," the distinctions between Truth and Fact and Honesty and Lying are again/still being blurred. 

A great sage once taught: “Fear is the path to the dark side…fear leads to anger…anger leads to hate…hate leads to suffering.” (Yoda, Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace) This sage, of course, was none other than Yoda, the lovable and wise Jedi master from the Star Wars movies. 

Yoda shares this timeless teaching with a young Anakin Skywalker in the midst of Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace, as the Jedi council determines if Anakin is worthy of being trained as a Jedi. Yoda and the other Jedi sense fear in Anakin’s heart, fear of losing his mother and fear of losing those he cares about. They worry that this fear may cause trouble in the future, foreshadowing Anakin’s eventual turn to the dark side as {spoiler alert} Darth Vader. 

Fear, anger, hate, and suffering are all feelings that could lead each of us towards darkness. How ironic, then, that Jewish tradition has noted these as true concerns regarding human nature, describing it as the eternal tension between the yetzer ha-ra, the “evil inclination,” and the yetzer ha-tov, the “inclination towards goodness.”

Further, the Jewish Mystical tradition of Lurianic Kabbalah, teaches that evil is able to exist in our world due to a shattering that occurred at the time of creation; the fractures of which remain open, due to, among other things, these elements of fear, anger, hatred and suffering. The Kabbalists assert that these elements of evil emanated from one side of God’s powers of judgement. It is, then, our duty as Jews, and as human beings, to use our powers of judgment in order to complete the process of tikkun; of healing and repair, in order to keep the dark side of judgment in check and, if we’re strong enough, to eliminate it completely.

But as is the human condition, our own personal judgment, and our sense of right and wrong is, in many ways, shaped by the society that we live in, the philosophies and ideologies we subscribe to, and the people we choose to hold close as role models.

Throughout the Star Wars prequels, we see this tension of the yetzer ha-ra and yetzer ha-tov and the struggle to trust one’s own judgment in the character of Anakin Skywalker. The fear, the concern, the suffering, and the hatred are all present. Yet even with all of these feelings, Anakin was able, for a time, to keep the dark side at bay.

Anakin finally succumbed to the dark side because of the evil Emperor, who, from the time Anakin was young, was among his mentors and friends. The Emperor capitalized on Anakin’s feelings and manipulated him through misleading information and false promises. Through this process, Anakin was made to mistrust the governing body of the republic and the Jedi council. In short, Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader because he was repeatedly lied to by a powerful figure that he trusted and that he looked to for advice and leadership. 

Unfortunately, much of that same dynamic appears to be playing itself out in our society on a daily basis; a matter that is most prominently highlighted by the current political campaigning as we approach November.

In 2012, as the Presidential campaign that pitted President Barack Obama against former Governor Mitt Romney was building steam, the phenomenon of fact-checking seemingly took center stage. In my sermon during the Kol Nidre evening service on Yom Kippur of that same year, I shared with you my concerns over the need for fact-checkers, and my hope that our society could be one based in reality. In that sermon I re-introduced us to the word “truthiness,” created and popularized by Stephen Colbert, and taking on an actual dictionary definition as: “the quality of preferring concepts or facts one wishes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true.”  I went on to explain the difference, as I saw it, between the words truth and fact. Truth can either “come from a reality of fact, or an idealism of story or faith,” whereas fact “has only one definition: a thing that is indisputably the case.” I also asserted my observation that truth, in 2012’s “overwhelming notion of it, [was] derived from ideologies or philosophies.”

One passage from that sermon continues to stand out as a cautionary note:

Eric W. Dolan, a writer for “The Raw Story,” an online news outlet, wrote…in August [of 2012] that scientists have discovered that Colbert’s idea of “truthiness” is not just a joke. The idea that one can present a story devoid of real supporting evidence, and convince people to actually believe that claim, is very apparent with regards to the human psyche. In multiple studies, researchers have discovered that more and more people will ignore facts in favor of convincing stories with dubious support.

This natural human inclination towards believing something in their gut, rather than with tangible proof, represents a danger to diversified societies.

Now, four years later, I am disheartened that my concerns were not only warranted, but also that this phenomenon has become even more dangerous for our country. In 2012 I was concerned about the ways that the candidates seemed to play fast and loose with facts, either using the same facts to present differing truths, or ignoring facts completely in favor of truths found in their personal or religious ideologies. Even the process of spinning can, in part, be explained as a vehicle of truth, explaining how facts or recent events fit into a narrative that one believes to be true. Today, however, the campaign has gone beyond the mere distinction between truths and facts and the process of spinning. Instead it has brought to the forefront a conflict that for most of us, I am sure, was not really in doubt: the conflict between honesty and lying. 

I define honesty as speaking the truth; either a truth rooted in facts, religious or philosophical narratives, or some combination of the two. When people are honest they are speaking out of a sense of concern and a sincere effort to make a positive impact on the world. In this same sense, Jewish tradition also looks favorably upon “white lies” for they are also told “l’shem shamayim” for the sake of heaven so that words and actions may either spare another from getting hurt or, in extreme cases, protect lives.

I define lying, however, as deliberately speaking untruths, rooted in fantasy or, perhaps, even anger or dissatisfaction to either cause harm to others or work to further selfish needs; or, in some cases, both.

We have seen the problems, the violence, and the further worldly fractures that have been caused by outright lies in this campaign.

When a candidate’s rhetoric deepens the divide between Americans; when a candidate’s mis-leading, and often false accusations fuels the hatred that is already present and leads to violence; when the only truths that a candidate offers are based on a self-created, self-serving, narcissistic narrative; when a candidate can openly deny saying or doing something when video recordings, screen shots, and even hard copy media provide facts to the contrary; and when the media will acknowledge all of this, yet still cover the hatred, the violence, and the un-truths, thereby implicitly encouraging more lies; when all of this has become the status quo, we as a country have two options: We can fear for our future, be angry, and develop a hatred for what is going on - a response that will most surely hasten our country’s turn to the dark side. OR, we can work to change the status quo, to restore hope, understanding, civility, and, God willing, love; leading our country to the light.

The prophets have taught us to be that light to the nations, so that our truth, our Torah, our teachings may permeate the world and begin to heal those fractures, shrinking those voids where evil has room to dwell.

The key to fulfilling this process of tikkun, of repairing our fractured world, goes back to the natural human tendency that we learned from Star Wars, that ultimately mis-direction, false promises, and outright lies are what tend to push us over the edge into darkness, causing us to create new fractures in the world. As such, our primary task in this season should be to work towards reducing or even eliminating this prominence of lying. Just getting back to basics, we need not look any further than the Ten Commandments to know this imperative: “Thou shalt not bear false witness.”

However, looking at just this commandment is not enough. There are two types of mitzvot, of commandments in our tradition, positive mitzvot and negative mitzvot: “the thou shalts" and “thou shalt nots.” In a national climate that is full of so much negativity, let us approach our holy work from the positive side of things. Instead of chastising people with “thou shalt not,” let’s encourage our fellow women and men with positivity.

We have 613 commandments to draw from and an entire corpus of scripture and teachings to guide us. In the Book of Exodus, only a few chapters after the Ten Commandments, we are taught: “Distance yourself from words of falsehood.” (Exodus 23:7) 

The Psalms also remind us of the benefit of honesty: “…God, who may walk in your sanctuary? Who shall dwell upon your holy mountain? One that walks upright, practices righteousness, and speaks truth in their heart…” (Psalm 15:1-2)

The rabbis of the talmud also pick up on this imperative of encouraging honesty. They have taught that “The seal of God is truth,” (Shabbat 55a, Sanhedrin 64a) and that speaking honestly is a spiritually favorable activity as it allows one to fully live the years that they have been allotted. (Sanhedrin 97a) Perhaps most importantly, the rabbis taught that we should avoid lying to children, thereby training them to be honest.” (Sukkah 46b)

We must do our best to train everyone to be honest and to seek out other honest people as friends, as colleagues, as confidants, as teachers, as mentors, and as leaders. By bringing more honesty into our world we will sustain the words of the Proverbs “A true tongue shall be established forever, but the lying tongue is only momentary,” (Proverb 12:19) which teaches us that honesty shall endure for eternity, but the credibility of a liar is fleeting. 

The Kabbalists that taught about the fracture of the world asserted that it is up to each member of the Jewish community to participate in this process of tikkun. They argued that everything can be restored to its place and that the fractures can be healed through a “secret magic” of our human acts. A powerful force, emanating from us.

We are at a pivotal moment in history, the history of our country and, indeed, the world. As individuals we will help choose which path our nation takes next. Will we succumb to the dark side of fear, hared, anger, and lies, or will we emerge into the light; promoting hope, friendship, understanding, generosity, and love. 

History has not always been kind to the Jewish people, but the Jewish community has always stood on the right side of history. When we face moments in our lives that force us to turn either to our yetzer ha-tov or our yetzer ha-ra let us be guided by our yetzer ha-tov, our inclination towards goodness. Let us choose to promote positivity and hope. Let us side with honesty over deceit. Let us be that light, that role model of truth and righteousness to the world. 


May the force be with us.

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