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The Torah deplores lying. One of the Ten Commandments is, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” Nevertheless, the Torah condones white lies, and the Talmud reinforces telling white lies for the sake of peace.
A couple of weeks ago, Sarah overheard a promise from God that she would bear a son. Sarah was old, way past child-bearing age, and she laughed and said, “My husband is old.” The implication of her comment was Abraham could not achieve sexual intercourse. (If Isaac was the 33 at the time of the Akedah, as the Midrash says, Abraham sired six sons after he married Keturah.) But God said to Abraham, “Sarah complained she is old, past child-bearing age.” The Torah sanctions this white lie for the sake of shalom bayit, peace in the house.
A couple of weeks from now, we will read about the death of Jacob. Joseph’s brothers were afraid that Joseph would avenge their selling him into slavery, now that he was the second-powerful man in the world. The brothers approached Joseph and concocted a story. Jacob on his deathbed issued an instruction to the brothers that they should relate to Joseph: forgive your brothers. The Torah sanctions this white lie for the sake of shalom bayit, peace in the house.
The Talmud references these stories to advise us that white lies that don’t hurt anybody are acceptable because they promote shalom bayit. The Talmud recounts two further example unrelated to the Torah that white lies are not only acceptable, but good. Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel had another of their many arguments, about an ugly bride. Beit Shammai said that you don’t compliment a bride on her wedding day for her good looks if she is “lame of blind.” Beit Hillel said that every bride is attractive on her wedding day.
The second example that the Talmud gives of an acceptable white lie is that of two sages who visit a town where a lesser-know scholar lives. The two sages didn’t visit the town to pay a call on the lesser-known scholar, but when they encountered the lesser-known scholar in the town, they lied and said they were there to visit him.
This week’s Torah portion contains arguably the greatest act of deception in the Torah: Rebecca’s enlisting Jacob to cheat Esau out of the first-born blessing. This lie didn’t promote shalom bayit. Far from it. But Rebecca’s was doing God’s will; when went to consult God when she was pregnant, God told “The older will serve the younger.”
Ibn Ezra excuses Jacob’s lying by comparing Jacob to other righteous people: Abraham, Elisha, Daniel, and Abraham, who told half-truths on occasion. The Abrahamic tradition, which led to the Judaism that we know, would not have been carried on by Esau. To those who pose the question, Does the end justify the means, I answer, History is written by the winners. A white lie is condoned when it promotes peace in the house, a lie is condoned when it preserves the continuity of Judaism.