“Integrity is telling myself the truth. And honesty is telling the truth to other people.”
– Spencer Johnson
It All Depends….
We’ve all heard the joke: How do you know when a lawyer is lying? When his lips are moving. Sadly, that joke is not reserved for the legal professions; but is endemic in the public arena with fake politicians and fake news, and in other areas such as fake goods, fake food, fake charities, fake political agendas, etc. Blatant fabrication seems to be the new norm.
And what is the truth anyway? In my inbox today was a promotion for a continuing legal education seminar, entitled, “Lawyers and Lies,” which looks at the difference between what we are supposed to learn in kindergarten – such as honesty being an unquestioned virtue – and how the law sees it. And so lawyers are held to something called the standard of “Required Honesty,” which is how the Professional Rules of Conduct play out depending on the relationship between the attorney-speaker and the subject. Anyone who takes webinar is guaranteed to learn how cultural values shape what we call a lie, and explore negotiation ethics as to the difference between bargaining and lying, and the line bewteen outright fabrication and effective lawyering.
Blessings and Curses
Ki Tavo is known as the Torah portion of “blessings and curses,” and describes a curious ceremony, like a mass verbal referendum, which was to take place when the Jewish nation people would enter the Land of Israel. They will encounter two mountains: Mount Ebal, which is barren and bleak, and Mount Gerizim, a lush and verdant slope. Half of the tribes are to ascend one mountain and half the other, while the Priests and the Holy Ark remain in the middle. The priests turn towards each mountain and utter 12 proclamations that bring either blessings or curses upon the Jewish people, to which they will reply “Amen.” Refrain from doing these prohibitions, and God will bless the Jewish people with economic prosperity and safety. Violate them, and the Jewish people will be cursed with economic disaster and foreign conquest.
So what are these 12 specific behaviors that teeter us between blessings and curses? Are they simply the Ten Commandments – plus 2? Oddly, on their face, they have nothing to do with what we think would be the central tenets and behaviors that would be paramount to driving national destiny. Rather, the prohibitions are for things like setting up secret idols, abusing one’s elders, secretly moving property lines, committing incest and variations thereof, being a hit man and killing innocent people, issuing unjust verdicts against the oppressed, taking advantage of the disabled, etc. What these behaviors have in common are that they are done in secret. Further, it tends to be someone in a position of power or control that is violating the foundations of relationship, civic duty or social norms. Finally, the victim has no recourse or protection. How many prominent figures have gone down after being exposed for privately committing the very behaviors they publically protest? How many people craftily put forth a clean and honest image while every night they sweep their dirt under the proverbial carpet? And how many victims of abuse fear retaliation – or not being believed – more than the violence?
Behind Closed Tents
In the Torah world, there is no such thing as, “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, or whatever goes on behind closed doors or the privacy of one’s home is OK.” The Jewish people were about to stake their claim in the homeland and become a functioning society. Ki Savo is trying to root out that which corrupts and destroys an organism from within – the cancer of hypocrisy, which can only live in the shadow world of secrecy. Such a people could never fulfill its mission: to serve God, be His emissary, and be a light unto the nations; hence to violate these precepts is to write their own ticket of destruction and exile.
You’re Not Smarter Than God
These two mountains, Gerizim and Ebal, are two peaks of the Ephraim range of mountains, which to this day still show a striking contrast in their appearance. The famous commentator, Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch, points out that there are no obvious reasons for this being the case as they arise from the same soil, get the same amount of rain, the same amount of sun, etc. “In the same way, blessing and curse are not conditional on external circumstances but on our own inner receptivity for the one or the other, on our behavior towards that which is to bring blessing.”
The ceremony on the mountains is a reaffirmation of the covenant between the Jewish people and God and His commandments. The hallmark of a covenantal society is that it is holistic; we are all in this together, we are responsible for each other, and the actions of individuals affect society at large. Apparently, as long as your behavior falls within the parameters of “Required Honesty,” you can legally fool others. You can even fool yourself. But you’re really deluded if you think you can fool God.
The Cost of Deception
To be honest, must we verbalize every thought that pops into our heads? Of course not! In fact, not telling your friend that you don’t absolutely love her new haircut is a good idea. On the other hand, if we do some honest self-reflection, we can usually find some discrepancies between our principles and our behavior. Unlike the shifting sands of cultural values, the Torah line between subversive corruption and what you can get away with has never changed. Ki Tavo is warning us that the cost of the deceptions that betray our values, deceive others and surreptitiously unravels the very fabric of society is not a price we can afford to pay.