At this year’s Scotch in the Sukkah event sponsored by the Men’s Club, we discussed the idea that truth is elusive. Judaism places high value on speaking truth and acting with integrity, especially in business, but that does not guarantee that people will always be truthful. Sometimes it is in our interest to lie, or at least hide the truth, sometimes to avoid incrimination or embarrassment or sometimes to get out of an awkward situation. Understandably, the discussion focused on the Kavanaugh-Ford hearings conducted by the Senate Judiciary Committee, which were in full swing at the time of our gathering in the Sukkah (our theme was not primarily the scourge of sexual assault against women, which is appalling and horrific, but rather the pursuit of truth). The consensus seemed to be that, since both parties being interviewed stated that they knew with 100% certainty what had happened some 36 years ago, someone was telling the truth, and someone was lying. The hearing thus seemed to be more about establishing credibility and less about finding and claiming the truth. In the absence of eye witness testimony and given that the incident is alleged to have occurred at a time prior to the flourishing of the digital age (thus no emails or video recordings to corroborate events), we sadly may never know the truth of what happened. To aid the discussion, I suggested that while Judaism compels us to seek truth and honesty in our lives, there is an implicit acknowledgement in our tradition that it isn’t always possible to discover the truth. Since we cannot read minds, human courts and mechanisms for establishing justice are at best imperfect. All we can ever do is strive to be as truthful and honest as we have the courage to be. That means that while human weakness and failing is unfortunate and unwanted, it is also inevitable.
The idea that human beings are not perfect is made abundantly clear in the opening parasha of the Torah, Bereshit, which we read this Shabbat. Near the end of the parasha, we read this verse:
And the Lord regretted that He had made man on earth, and His heart was saddened. (Genesis 6:6)
The Talmudic sages are puzzled by the assertion in the verse that God, whom they believed to be omniscient, could regret having created flawed human beings if their nature was known in advance. One Midrashic passage envisions a conversation between a sage and a heretic in which the heretic asserts that God could not be all-knowing and simultaneously not know that His creation would be imperfect. The sage replies that God knew that human beings would be imperfect but accepted their nature.
Rashi (1040-1105, France) opines that God created human beings knowing they would be imperfect but confident that some remarkably great individuals would ultimately descend from some imperfect ones.
More broadly, the sages encourage us to try to accept the imperfect nature of being human. In a midrash, we read:
When God came to create Adam, the ministering angels divided themselves into groups and parties. Some of them said, “Let him be created,” while others urged, “Let him not be created.” …Love said, “Let him be created because he will carry out acts of love.” Truth said, “Let him not be created because he will be filled with falsehood.” Righteousness said, “Let him be created because he will do good deeds.” Peace said, “Let him not be created because he will be filled with controversy.” …While the angels were arguing and fighting with one another, the Holy Blessed One he will be filled with controversy.” …While the angels were arguing and fighting with one another, the Holy Blessed One created man. He said to the angels, “What can you do? Man already has been made.” (Bereisheit Rabbah 8:5)
The Talmudic sages aren’t really asking whether human beings should have been created. They were pragmatists who tried to understand the human condition in the light of their faith. Their midrashic musings are instead meant to compel us to confront, to acknowledge and to accept the fact that people are imperfect.
That we are imperfect shouldn’t be used as an excuse or justification for dishonest, untruthful behavior, and certainly not for abusing and taking advantage of people. It’s simply a reminder to us of our nature, a reminder that sometimes we will soar like angels and at other times we will ignore the Divine image within us and plummet. The trick is always to strive to be honest, even when it’s inconvenient or uncomfortable, and always to seek the truth, hoping that more often than not we will find it and embrace it.