The centerpiece of our Torah portion this week is the Ten Commandments, or as the code is commonly identified in Hebrew, Aseret HaDibrot -“The Ten Words.” There are two in particular that deal with honesty. The third commandment: You shall not swear falsely by the name of the Lord your God; for the Lord will not clear one who swears falsely by His name (Exodus 20.7). The ninth commandment: You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor (Exodus 20.13).
Rooted within one of the most fundamental ethical codes of Biblical teaching is the obligation to tell the truth; to be honest. The consequences for violating these commandments is very grave. Later in the Torah, for example, we see the result of deliberately bringing false witness against another person, particularly in a situation that might cause that person to incur capital punishment: If the one who testified is a false witness, if he has testified falsely against his fellow, you shall do to him as he schemed to do to his fellow. Thus you will sweep out evil from your midst… (Deuteronomy 19.18-19).
So lying in general, and in the more specific case, bringing false testimony, are very serious offenses. They are offenses we would commit against each other, and against God.
Within the past year, virtually with every new morning, we have been waking up to news of lies and falsehoods, half-truths and deceptions, obfuscation and false testimony. And these violations of the most fundamental teachings of our Biblical tradition have been committed by none other than the leaders of our own government—no less than the President of the United States, and the advisors with whom he has surrounded himself. Our vocabulary has expanded in this new, almost surreal environment, to include such phrases as “alternative facts” and “fake news.” Excuse me? “Alternative facts?” “Fake news?” But in fact, these newly-invented phrases by the president and his advisors are nothing more than cold, bare, bold-faced lies. Lies. They are liars. With virtually every word, they violate one of the most basic ethical precepts of the code that has helped to inform our entire system of laws and government.
We know the phrase “the court of public opinion.” While as private citizens we do not carry the same legal power as the courts, “we the people” do indeed possess a great deal of power. Ultimately, we are the ones who are responsible for demanding that the liars in our government be called into account, and be called upon to answer for their lies.
Just before the Revelation of Torah, as represented by this iteration of the Ten Commandments, the Torah describes the scene at Mount Sinai: Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke, for the Lord had come down upon it in fire; the smoke rose like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled violently. The blare of the horn grew louder and louder. As Moses spoke, God answered him in thunder. (Exodus 19.18-19). The emergence of this ethical framework, while not the first of its type in the Ancient Near East, was nevertheless revolutionary in the place it would occupy as an entire people adopted an ethical framework as its guide for living. In reading this description of the smoke, and the trumpets, and the thunder, we might say that it was an earth-shattering moment. We are going to be a people that lives by the law, founded upon basic ethical mandates. Perhaps God was trying to “get our attention.”
What will it take to get our attention, as it were, as Americans, and as citizens of the modern world? How long can our society withstand the flagrant violation of basic principles of honesty and decency? The answer is in our hands.
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