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Parashat Vayera (Genesis 18:1-22:24)

“Avraham journeyed from there to the land of the Negev,
and he lived between Kadesh and Shur.” (Genesis 20:1)

If “honesty is the best policy” why does God fudge the truth in Parashat Vayera? Abram and Sarai are visited by three strangers (angels, actually). When Sarai overhears one of them tell Abram she will have a son in the next year, she laughs, saying, “…Shall I have the pleasure of a son, with my husband an old man?” (Gen.18:12). God then asks Abram why Sarai laughs, but quotes her as saying, “Can I really give birth when I am old?” (Gen. 18:13). God surely knows what Sarai said, but changes her statement knowingly. God is not honest with Abram. What’s up with that?

Rashi (an acronym for Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, the pre-eminent 11th century Jewish commentator) cites the Talmud to explain God does this mipnei darkhei shalom, for the sake of [domestic] peace (Babylonian Talmud Bava Metzia 87a). Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson (1959-; Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University) explains: God must choose between two cherished values: honesty and preserving human dignity and harmony. Honesty dictates quoting Sarai exactly. Preserving human dignity and harmony requires fudging the truth to spare Abram’s feelings. We all face this dilemma at one time or another; God is role-modeling which value takes precedence.

Artson presses the point: honesty is certainly important. However, assuming it is of ultimate importance in every situation is actually a form of idolatry. That is because God’s primary desire is human caring. “Telling it like it is” in the name of integrity regardless of the human cost ignores that imperative. Honesty is a blessing. Sometimes, though, it is also a burden.

Gut Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom

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