The Primacy of Truth: Parashat Vayeira Genesis 18:1-22:24

If Abraham can tell a self-serving lie, why can’t Donald Trump? Abraham told a whopper, not simply a white lie. (I have included the text in Hebrew and English at the end.) He told Abimelach that Sarah was his sister – not his half-sister and certainly not his wife. It was the second time he told the same lie. In Egypt, Abraham told Pharaoh the same thing (Genesis 12). Since taking a wife into a harem would be a horrendous abuse of the social order for both Pharaoh and Abimelech, the lie could have disastrous consequences.

On hearing that such a beautiful woman was Abraham’s sister, Abimelech, king of Gerar, took her, that is, put her in his harem only to have God reveal to him in a dream that he had actually taken a man’s wife and was on the verge of committing adultery, a heinous sin. Abimelech pleaded innocence, innocence in his heart because that was not his intention (Abraham had lied to him and so had Sarah). and innocence in his hand because he had not yet laid a hand on Sarah. God let Abimelech off the hook.

But what about Abraham? God knew he had been a liar – twice, not once. And about the same matter. When Abimelech confronted him, Abraham offered two excuses. He did it to save his own life, for strangers would have killed him to take possession of such a beautiful woman. Second, it was not a real lie but a circumlocution. Sarah was indeed his sister, but his half-sister, seed of his father but not his mother. It was a misleading statement rather than a bold-faced lie.

Abimelech did not then remonstrate Abraham for his lie, but, in fact, heaped rewards upon him and was, in turn rewarded by God by lifting the curse of barrenness from his household just as He had previously lifted the plagues from Egypt for Pharaoh. But what of Abraham? Did God punish him for the lie? God did nothing. One interpretation is that Abraham did nothing wrong, either because: a) God did this for a higher purpose; b) Abraham was a prophet and could be easily forgiven for a very slight exercise of making a misleading statement; c) and/or the lie was justified to ensure that Abraham survived to serve that higher purpose.

Let’s be clear, very clear. Abraham told what is apparently a bold-faced lie. But was it a bold-faced lie? “Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord, but those who deal truthfully are His delight. A prudent man conceals knowledge, but the heart of fools proclaims foolishness.” (Proverbs 12:22-23) Abraham told a white lie as a prudent man concerned with his own survival. He did not tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. He did not speak under oath. But only fools tell the whole truth. It is wise to be discreet and keep certain knowledge to yourself.

However, Abraham did not simply withhold information out of prudence. He misled. Further, in his misleading statement cum bold-faced lie, Abraham endangered others. Pharaoh and Abimelech sinned against their social norms, albeit unknowingly, and against Abraham’s God? What if the lie could make God look bad in the eyes of non-Hebrews?  Truth and Peace or non-conflict are not two disconnected alternatives; they are complementary. Rabbi Shimon (B’reishit Rabbah 8.5) taught that Peace had opposed God creating humans because they would be in perpetual conflict. Truth also argued against creating humans, but for a very different reason; humans will be indisposed to tell the truth. Confronted with these very uncomfortable prophetic voices and opposition to his will, in a rage, God cast Truth out of heaven and down to earth. Not Peace but Truth.

Why one rather than the other or even both?  Because humans would need truth even more than peace. When we speak, we must consider the consequences of our words on others. That is why we must be prudent when speaking. I tell the truth – generally. But prudence is not my forte. When others are upset at what I say, I insist – but I told the truth. When I saw my daughter-in-law returning from a very hard day, I told her she looked horrible. She did look wan and worn out from two very hard days in a row. But I did not lead with suggesting she might be working too hard. Instead, that followed my proclamation on her appearance. It may have been truthful, but what I said was very imprudent and hurtful. And unhelpful.

Our words must be boundaried by compassion. Temper truth with diplomacy. But, as Rabbi Mary Zamore wrote in her dvar Torah on this parashat, truth must retain its primacy. A truthful but prudent statement that deceives somewhat by omission, that is, a white lie, misleads somewhat only because of compassion for the other. But Abraham was not guided by a concern for the other, but by his own survival. Further, in that concern, he even endangered others. His was not a white lie but a bold-faced one. His was not a judicious restriction on his speech out of concern for the other. Nor was it an exception, but a habit.

However, Abraham redeemed himself. How? He admitted to his lie. He did not cover up. For as I have repeated many times, the greatest sin in the Torah is always the cover-up, not the lie itself. Truth, where possible, but not always the full truth. When concerned for the other, prudence dictates omission.

Even in this case, there is a way to be prudent without telling an outright lie. “Don’t you love this new scarf I bought?” Reply: “the colour suits you.” You engage in circumlocution by telling a partial truth, but do not honestly answer the question. Because you may not love the scarf. In fact, you may dislike it. But she has bought it. She may be unable to return it. A diplomat might ask what other scarves did she see? What were their merits compared to this one? Why did she choose this one? Suggesting the possibility of second thoughts is one way of avoiding a hurtful statement.

However, when Sarah mocked Abraham when he told her that God had promised that she would have a child, her forthrightness was not guided by prudence. What she said was hurtful. She implied not only that she was too old to have a child, but so was he. Further, even worse, she suggested that God might be a liar. And she said all this to protect herself from hurt and further disappointment.

Abraham told a partial lie to protect himself. Sarah told a partial truth to protect herself. Neither of their statements were guided by prudence. However, both owned up to their mistakes. Donald Trump tells outright lies, does so only with consideration for his own benefit and, worst of all, never admits to telling the lie but engages in one cover-up after another. Further, his minions, even relatively honourable ones, act to excuse, distract from and disguise those lies. His worst ones engage in outright lies themselves.

Nikki Haley was one of the best that Donald Trump appointed to his administration. She thinks that she is just being prudent when she is confronted with Trump’s repeated lying. “That is just who he is.” That is “just how he talks.” These are just “slip-ups.” She refrains from judgement without endorsing his statements. In her interview with Wolf Blitzer on CNN last evening, she insisted that President Trump was always truthful “with her.”

But is this just prudence? Further, when she questions whether impeachment is appropriate given that he may have asked for a favour and a so-called quid pro quo, but there was not there there, is she not facilitating a cover-up in the claim of prudence? In the end, she claims, he did not withhold the military aid. In the end, he did not get the Ukrainian leadership to instigate an inquiry. Finally, she insisted that there is only a year left in his presidency. Let the American people who chose him make the decision, not his political foes, the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives. Wait for the election and let the American voters make the choice.

Nikki omits so much that what she says is transformed from prudential speech to bold-faced lies. Most of all because she claims to stand on a higher ground of protecting the democratic voice. She does no such thing. In her soothing assurances, she is protecting a lying and self-serving president who is willing to let Ukrainian soldiers die for his own political self-preservation. Democracy is not simply about allowing people to choose, but allowing the public to make informed choices. The hearings currently in Congress are the parallel to a Grand Jury, an effort to gather information and make a decision to indict. The information gathered is critical to making an informed choice.

Further, in engaging in such deliberations, the House of Representatives is carrying out its constitutional duties. They are gathering information to determine whether or not there has been what appears to be a trade-off of a long-promised meeting in the White House needed by a nascent president of Ukraine to send a signal to the Russians with whom his country is at war that he has American backing. The members of Congress are gathering information to assess whether what appears to be the case is true, that the President withheld providing Congressionally approved arms until the new Ukrainian regime agreed to announce that it would be holding an inquiry into the conduct of the Bidens in 2016.

There is speculation that Haley is engaging in this imprudent cover-up to succeed Vice-President Pence in the 2020 election. She denies any such effort. I believe her. But she may be positioning herself to become the presidential nominee for 2024 and trying to retain her bona fides before the Trump base. Her motives are suspect because they do not seem to be driven by what is best for the American people, by what is best for their ability to make an informed choice and by what is commanded of the House of Representatives by the constitution.

Nikki thinks that impeachment is the ultimate and extreme act unwarranted by the circumstances, but without supporting ensuring that all the evidence is brought forth to make such a determination. But impeachment is not the parallel to a death penalty. It is simply the appropriate act to take if indeed high crimes and misdemeanors, including bribery, have been employed by the President in contravention to what is agreed generally to be in the U.S. interests as well as the well-being of a threatened ally. Covering-up remains the most egregious sin of all. For if Trump is allowed to get away with his behavior without consequences, without as many facts as possible being put on the table, not only would Trump not be held accountable by the House of Representatives, but he would be allowed to continue to insist that he is indeed unaccountable to any one but the voter – unaccountable to established policy by Congress, unaccountable to the rule of law, and unaccountable to the Constitution.

His is a populist creed and Nikki Haley is not just being diplomatic for possibly self-serving purposes, but betrays her willingness to surrender to that populist credo. The people rule. The majority rules. The strong man rules who has the backing of the people. To hell with institutional procedures. To hell with the rule of law. To hell with the constitution. Where is Nikki Haley’s compassion that should determine her prudence? Holding a holder of high office accountable with the possibility of removing him from that office is not anywhere akin to the death penalty. “You’re fired” is not the same as, “You’re dead.”

Prudence is emet shel chesed, “kind and loving truth,” not self-serving omissions, distractions and irrelevancies. All the evidence thus far presented points unequivocally to an effort by the President of the United States to withhold funds authorized by Congress to the Ukrainian government as well as a promise of a meeting in the White House between the presidents of both nations until Ukraine publicly announced that it would be holding investigations into possible Ukrainian influence in the American 2016 election and the Bidens’ role in that effort. The fact that the aid was eventually released after the whistleblower statement became public, does not detract from the appearance of an offer of a bribe. And an offer made, not to ensure the Ukrainians look into corruption, but to suggest and imply corruption by a person who may be President Trump’s most formidable rival in the 2020 election, is a high crime and misdemeanor.

Blackmail that in the end that does not work is still blackmail. A conspiracy to commit a crime is a crime. Doing so primarily for self-centered reasons as suggested by the testimony of Ambassador William B. Taylor Jr.’s testimony that one of his aides overheard Trump in a cell phone conversation in a Ukrainian restaurant task Ambassador Sondland whether the Ukrainians were moving towards launching the investigations requested, the same Sondland that Trump claims he hardly knew. “I hardly know the gentleman.” Further, Sondland told that aide after the phone call ended that Trump cared more about the investigations than the well-being of Ukraine. The blackmail was there. The blackmail was self-serving and, in fact, ran directly contrary to the interests of both the U.S. as well as Ukraine.

Further, it had nothing to do with Ukraine’s endemic corruption but only with an announcement about investigating the Bidens and only the Bidens. Taylor testified that Sondland told him that there would be a stalemate re the Ukrainian president’s visit and, more importantly, the release of the aid until the investigation was announced.

George Kent, the top diplomat in the Ukraine, who had warned his superiors about the inappropriateness of Hunter Biden sitting on the Board of Directors of a company owned by a possibly corrupt Ukrainian oligarch, nevertheless had never heard of “Crowdstrike.” Nor was there any evidence of actual corruption by the Bidens and none of the new Ukrainian government. He informed the inquiry that the appropriate Office of Management in the U.S. had given the new Ukrainian government a seal of approval with respect to corruption as a condition of the aid funds being released. Nevertheless, there is no indication that Trump was concerned with Ukrainian corruption but only with announcing an investigation into the Bidens.

The bottom line:

Trump is a repeated self-serving liar – but that in itself is not an impeachable offence.

Trump refuses to be accountable to the rule of law – but that in itself does not appear to be an impeachable offence.

Trump refuses even to be accountable to the Constitution and refuses to cooperate with the House of Representatives in fulfilling its constitutional duties – but that in itself does not appear to be an impeachable offence.

However, if the evidence continues to build and support the claim that he withheld funds from the Ukraine on condition that they investigate his potential rival in the 2020 election, this is explicitly an impeachable offence.

The Senate, given the propensity of the Republicans to draw their wagons in a circle to protect the president, even when it involves misdirection, distraction, serious omissions, false claims, and even outright lies by some of them, may not vote for impeachment. Nevertheless, the majority of the House of Representatives will have done its duty to hold the president accountable and to inform the public. That is laudable behaviour which could backfire in some ways to jeopardize their election prospects in 2020. Even so, it is the right thing to do when imprudent outright lies threaten the well-being of the United States, the well-being of Ukraine, the well-being of peace in our time, and, perhaps most importantly, has most likely led to the loss of lives of brave Ukrainian soldiers fighting the Russians and their proxies.

Genesis Chapter 20 בְּרֵאשִׁית

א  וַיִּסַּע מִשָּׁם אַבְרָהָם אַרְצָה הַנֶּגֶב, וַיֵּשֶׁב בֵּין-קָדֵשׁ וּבֵין שׁוּר; וַיָּגָר, בִּגְרָר. 1 And Abraham journeyed from thence toward the land of the South, and dwelt between Kadesh and Shur; and he sojourned in Gerar.
ב  וַיֹּאמֶר אַבְרָהָם אֶל-שָׂרָה אִשְׁתּוֹ, אֲחֹתִי הִוא; וַיִּשְׁלַח, אֲבִימֶלֶךְ מֶלֶךְ גְּרָר, וַיִּקַּח, אֶת-שָׂרָה. 2 And Abraham said of Sarah his wife: ‘She is my sister.’ And Abimelech king of Gerar sent, and took Sarah.
ג  וַיָּבֹא אֱלֹהִים אֶל-אֲבִימֶלֶךְ, בַּחֲלוֹם הַלָּיְלָה; וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ, הִנְּךָ מֵת עַל-הָאִשָּׁה אֲשֶׁר-לָקַחְתָּ, וְהִוא, בְּעֻלַת בָּעַל. 3 But God came to Abimelech in a dream of the night, and said to him: ‘Behold, thou shalt die, because of the woman whom thou hast taken; for she is a man’s wife.’
ד  וַאֲבִימֶלֶךְ, לֹא קָרַב אֵלֶיהָ; וַיֹּאמַר–אֲדֹנָי, הֲגוֹי גַּם-צַדִּיק תַּהֲרֹג. 4 Now Abimelech had not come near her; and he said: ‘LORD, wilt Thou slay even a righteous nation?
ה  הֲלֹא הוּא אָמַר-לִי אֲחֹתִי הִוא, וְהִיא-גַם-הִוא אָמְרָה אָחִי הוּא; בְּתָם-לְבָבִי וּבְנִקְיֹן כַּפַּי, עָשִׂיתִי זֹאת. 5 Said he not himself unto me: She is my sister? and she, even she herself said: He is my brother. In the simplicity of my heart and the innocence of my hands have I done this.’
ו  וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו הָאֱלֹהִים בַּחֲלֹם, גַּם אָנֹכִי יָדַעְתִּי כִּי בְתָם-לְבָבְךָ עָשִׂיתָ זֹּאת, וָאֶחְשֹׂךְ גַּם-אָנֹכִי אוֹתְךָ, מֵחֲטוֹ-לִי; עַל-כֵּן לֹא-נְתַתִּיךָ, לִנְגֹּעַ אֵלֶיהָ. 6 And God said unto him in the dream: ‘Yea, I know that in the simplicity of thy heart thou hast done this, and I also withheld thee from sinning against Me. Therefore suffered I thee not to touch her.
ז  וְעַתָּה, הָשֵׁב אֵשֶׁת-הָאִישׁ כִּי-נָבִיא הוּא, וְיִתְפַּלֵּל בַּעַדְךָ, וֶחְיֵה; וְאִם-אֵינְךָ מֵשִׁיב–דַּע כִּי-מוֹת תָּמוּת, אַתָּה וְכָל-אֲשֶׁר-לָךְ. 7 Now therefore restore the man’s wife; for he is a prophet, and he shall pray for thee, and thou shalt live; and if thou restore her not, know thou that thou shalt surely die, thou, and all that are thine.’
ח  וַיַּשְׁכֵּם אֲבִימֶלֶךְ בַּבֹּקֶר, וַיִּקְרָא לְכָל-עֲבָדָיו, וַיְדַבֵּר אֶת-כָּל-הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה, בְּאָזְנֵיהֶם; וַיִּירְאוּ הָאֲנָשִׁים, מְאֹד. 8 And Abimelech rose early in the morning, and called all his servants, and told all these things in their ears; and the men were sore afraid.
ט  וַיִּקְרָא אֲבִימֶלֶךְ לְאַבְרָהָם, וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ מֶה-עָשִׂיתָ לָּנוּ וּמֶה-חָטָאתִי לָךְ, כִּי-הֵבֵאתָ עָלַי וְעַל-מַמְלַכְתִּי, חֲטָאָה גְדֹלָה:  מַעֲשִׂים אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יֵעָשׂוּ, עָשִׂיתָ עִמָּדִי. 9 Then Abimelech called Abraham, and said unto him: ‘What hast thou done unto us? and wherein have I sinned against thee, that thou hast brought on me and on my kingdom a great sin? thou hast done deeds unto me that ought not to be done.’
י  וַיֹּאמֶר אֲבִימֶלֶךְ, אֶל-אַבְרָהָם:  מָה רָאִיתָ, כִּי עָשִׂיתָ אֶת-הַדָּבָר הַזֶּה. 10 And Abimelech said unto Abraham: ‘What sawest thou, that thou hast done this thing?’
יא  וַיֹּאמֶר, אַבְרָהָם, כִּי אָמַרְתִּי רַק אֵין-יִרְאַת אֱלֹהִים, בַּמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה; וַהֲרָגוּנִי, עַל-דְּבַר אִשְׁתִּי. 11 And Abraham said: ‘Because I thought: Surely the fear of God is not in this place; and they will slay me for my wife’s sake.
יב  וְגַם-אָמְנָה, אֲחֹתִי בַת-אָבִי הִוא–אַךְ, לֹא בַת-אִמִּי; וַתְּהִי-לִי, לְאִשָּׁה. 12 And moreover she is indeed my sister, the daughter of my father, but not the daughter of my mother; and so she became my wife.
יג  וַיְהִי כַּאֲשֶׁר הִתְעוּ אֹתִי, אֱלֹהִים מִבֵּית אָבִי, וָאֹמַר לָהּ, זֶה חַסְדֵּךְ אֲשֶׁר תַּעֲשִׂי עִמָּדִי:  אֶל כָּל-הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר נָבוֹא שָׁמָּה, אִמְרִי-לִי אָחִי הוּא. 13 And it came to pass, when God caused me to wander from my father’s house, that I said unto her: This is thy kindness which thou shalt show unto me; at every place whither we shall come, say of me: He is my brother.’
יד  וַיִּקַּח אֲבִימֶלֶךְ צֹאן וּבָקָר, וַעֲבָדִים וּשְׁפָחֹת, וַיִּתֵּן, לְאַבְרָהָם; וַיָּשֶׁב לוֹ, אֵת שָׂרָה אִשְׁתּוֹ. 14 And Abimelech took sheep and oxen, and men-servants and women-servants, and gave them unto Abraham, and restored him Sarah his wife.
טו  וַיֹּאמֶר אֲבִימֶלֶךְ, הִנֵּה אַרְצִי לְפָנֶיךָ:  בַּטּוֹב בְּעֵינֶיךָ, שֵׁב. 15 And Abimelech said: ‘Behold, my land is before thee: dwell where it pleaseth thee.’
טז  וּלְשָׂרָה אָמַר, הִנֵּה נָתַתִּי אֶלֶף כֶּסֶף לְאָחִיךְ–הִנֵּה הוּא-לָךְ כְּסוּת עֵינַיִם, לְכֹל אֲשֶׁר אִתָּךְ; וְאֵת כֹּל, וְנֹכָחַת. 16 And unto Sarah he said: ‘Behold, I have given thy brother a thousand pieces of silver; behold, it is for thee a covering of the eyes to all that are with thee; and before all men thou art righted.’
יז  וַיִּתְפַּלֵּל אַבְרָהָם, אֶל-הָאֱלֹהִים; וַיִּרְפָּא אֱלֹהִים אֶת-אֲבִימֶלֶךְ וְאֶת-אִשְׁתּוֹ, וְאַמְהֹתָיו–וַיֵּלֵדוּ. 17 And Abraham prayed unto God; and God healed Abimelech, and his wife, and his maid-servants; and they bore children.
יח  כִּי-עָצֹר עָצַר יְהוָה, בְּעַד כָּל-רֶחֶם לְבֵית אֲבִימֶלֶךְ, עַל-דְּבַר שָׂרָה, אֵשֶׁת אַבְרָהָם.  {ס} 18 For the LORD had fast closed up all the wombs of the house of Abimelech, because of Sarah Abraham’s wife. {S}

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