When Altering the Truth is not a Sin
By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim
The Talmud teaches us that God’s signature is Emet, meaning truth. One of the thirteen attributes of God we recite throughout the Selichot prayer services and on Yom Kippur is Emet, truth. God represents the ultimate truth and the ultimate in truthfulness and we are commanded to emulate God and be exceedingly truthful people.
When Sarah overheard the angel telling Abraham that when he returns Sarah will have a son, she laughed and said, “After I have become worn out, will I have smooth flesh? And also, my master (Abraham) is old.” God turns to Abraham and asks “Why did Sarah laugh, saying, ‘Is it really true that I will give birth, although I am old?’ Is anything hidden from the Lord? At the appointed time, I will return to you, at this time next year and Sarah will have a son.” God reported Sarah’s statement differently. Sarah said that Abraham was too old to bear children, but God reported to Abraham that Sarah had said that she was too old to bear children. The Talmud (Bava Metziah 87a) learns from this: Peace is of such great importance that even the Holy One, Blessed be He, altered the truth for the sake of preserving peace. Even God who is the ultimate truth, altered the truth for the sake of peace. We learn from this that altering the truth is permitted to promote peace.
Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz (1902–1979), the Mir Rosh Yeshiva asked a powerful question on this teaching from the Talmud. Abraham was almost 100 years old when he was told Sarah would have a son. He was clearly an elderly man. Surely, he knew that he was getting on in years. Sarah, thinking it unlikely for him to have children at his age, was perfectly reasonable. If God would have communicated to Abraham Sarah’s true thoughts that Abraham was too old to have children would that have created conflict between Abraham and Sarah? This does not seem to be an example of altering the truth for the sake of peace at all. How would their relationship be negatively influenced by Sarah stating an obvious fact?
Rabbi Shmuelevitz answers that we see from this is that our understanding of the concept of peace in relationships is not entirely correct. Peace is not simply the absence of conflict. That is just the beginning of peace. Peace also applies to the level of closeness and connection within a relationship. Abraham would not have been upset with Sarah stating the obvious fact that he was old. Nonetheless, Abraham’s conscious knowledge of his wife perceiving him as less vibrant and elderly changed their relationship in a certain very subtle way. This too falls under the category of making peace. Everything we can do to improve human relationships and closeness on a deeper lever falls under the broad category of making peace. May we merit to bring much needed peace to our world on every level.