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Shoftim   August 14, 2021

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

Shabbat Shalom.

It was Kellyann Conway, an advisor to former President Trump who coined the phrase, “Alternative Facts”. It was an amazing change from the time of Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan who reminded his colleagues that “You are entitled to your opinion. But you are not entitled to your own facts.”
This is now the world that we live in, a world where people argue about what the real “facts” are. This is the era of “fake news” where people question what we see, what we experience and what we know. There are alternative ways to approach everything that happens and there are many attempts by famous people to rewrite history to match their own opinions of what is happening in the world. 
It was the biblical sage, Kohelet, who wrote in the book with his name, that “What has happened before will happen again. There is nothing new under the sun”. That is why I was not surprised when Rabbi Chaya Rowan Baker, the rabbi at Congregation Ramot-Zion in Jerusalem wrote this week that the first reference to “fake news” can be found in this week’s parsha, Parshat Shoftim. 
We read in Exodus 18:20:                              אַ֣ךְ הַנָּבִ֡יא אֲשֶׁ֣ר יָזִיד֩ לְדַבֵּ֨ר דָּבָ֜ר בִּשְׁמִ֗י אֵ֣ת אֲשֶׁ֤ר לֹֽא־צִוִּיתִיו֙ לְדַבֵּ֔ר 
But any prophet who presumes to speak in My name an oracle that I did not command him to utter, or who speaks in the name of other gods—that prophet shall die.” 
We are used to Prophets that speak in the name of God. But there was a real issue in the ancient world about how to know when a Prophet is speaking in the name of God or if that Prophet is spouting “fake news” a fake account of what God said. According to our Parshah, the one who spouts this kind of fake news, is liable for the death penalty for leading the people astray from what God wants them to do. 
But this leads to a problem that the ancient world experienced just as we, in our time, experience. How do we know which prophet is real and which one is fake? How do we know if the prophet is speaking God’s will or just making up what that person wants us to believe? How do we know what is real and what is fake? Our parsha goes on to explain how we can tell the difference between real and fake news…
And should you ask yourselves, “How can we know that the oracle was not spoken by the LORD?”— if the prophet speaks in the name of the LORD and the oracle does not come true, that oracle was not spoken by the LORD; the prophet has uttered it presumptuously: do not stand in dread of him.
So, for a prophet, the difference is clear. If the prophecy comes true, it is from God. If it does not come true, then the prophet is a fake. That makes it pretty clear. Right?
Ummm. Not exactly. It is possible for it to take a long time to figure out if a prophecy comes true or not. Rabbi Rowan Baker reminds us that sometimes the prophecy will not be fulfilled during our lifetime. Moses, in Deuteronomy, sometimes is speaking about events that will come to pass many years in the future, long after the People of Israel are settled in their land. And then there is the prophet Jonah. Jonah prophesied that in just 30 days, the city of Nineveh would be destroyed. The people repented and God changed the divine mind. The city is not destroyed. Does that make Jonah a false prophet? 
It is easy for the Torah to describe a false prophet as one whose words do not come to pass, but this turns out to be impossible to determine. In the movie, “Leap of Faith” a fake preacher uses technology to fool large crowds into thinking that he can heal their ills and he takes in a lot of money. It turns out that people want to believe in miracles, and they will pay lots of money to see one. So how can we ever really know if the prophet is a fake and just telling us what we want to hear?
It turns out that spreading fake news is far easier than speaking the truth. When you want to believe something, we are disposed to find something to believe in no matter how much we have to delude ourselves that it is true. We tell ourselves “It’s not NOT true” as if that makes it the truth. The prophet Jeremiah told King Hezekiah the truth, that God would destroy Jerusalem and the king’s lineage would die. The king did not want to hear this so Jeremiah was sent to jail as if that would change his truth. 
King Ahab accused the prophet Elijah of causing a drought in the land not believing that it was his actions that brought God to bring the drought about in the first place. Elijah has to flee for his life and hide so that the king would not kill the prophet who told the truth he did not want to hear. 
In our time we see much of the same situations. People turn to news channels and social media sites that give out information that is completely false because they know what people want to hear. People want someone to validate the opinions they already have, not someone who will tell them that they may be wrong. Someone who is worried about getting a vaccine, will gladly go to news organizations and social media sites that confirm that the vaccines are unsafe. But that is not the truth. People who are unhappy with our current president will happily read articles and send donations to places that pass on the lie that the last election was stolen. But that is not the truth. People who don’t trust our government will happily listen to whoever is telling them that the government is out to take all their freedoms away, but that is not the truth either. The truth is what shows such people how gullible they can be and who wants to be told how wrong they are. 
So how can these verses in the Torah help us find the true prophet, the true facts, the true information, when finding the truth is so hard? Again, Rabbi Rowan Baker helps us see the truth in our Parsha. She writes: 
“The decision whether or not to believe the prophet is a decision of the present, and it cannot depend on future happenings. This is why the way the Torah deals with the issue of misinformation always seemed unhelpful to me, until I thought: Maybe this isn’t really meant to help us determine a true prophet from a false one. Maybe it is designed to develop our sensitivity and alertness to the idea of fake news and how to protect ourselves from it.
In a world full of misinformation, we must be willing to constantly re-evaluate.  Acknowledging our own wrong judgement must be routine. Along with recognizing that new information can and sometimes must change what it is that we hold to be true.”
We really never know, in the moment, what is true or not. Truth is only revealed over time. We have to be ready to say, at any time, “I was wrong”, “I did not have all the information”, “I learned something new today and it has changed the way I see things.”
To be clear, this is not just agreeing with what you think everyone else is saying. Truth is hard; sometimes it means that we have to disagree with people we know and love. We have to be prepared to find new information, to gather different opinions and then work out for ourselves where the truth in that moment can be found. 
There are also times when as we discover new information; we are forced to change some fundamental truths we have relied upon for many years. We may love our car, but the reality of climate change may have us rethink public transportation. We could think of poor people as lazy until we put a sandwich in the hand of someone who has fallen on hard times, someone not very different than you or me. It is brutally hard to discover that hidden in our daily lives are acts of racism and bigotry. 
It is our job to do the hard work of seeking out the truth. It is our duty to discover that truth and make the changes in our lives that will promote that truth. It means listening to people who have a different point of view, really listening to them to understand what they are trying to tell you. Sure, they could be wrong, but what will change in your life if it turns out they are right? We have to listen to news stations that have different points of view so we can decide for ourselves where the truth really resides. We have to question their biases and reject their ridicule of those who disagree with them. Nobody has all the answers. No one has all the truth. This is not about finding that single source where truth resides. It is about each of us searching for truth everywhere we go. 
Truth has to withstand the test of time. When we discover what is right and true, we will find that it does not change, but that we change as a result of our discoveries. The old lies and falsehoods must be put to death and buried. The peddlers of falsehood must see that their trade has been revealed as the fraud that it is and thus falsehood will diminish in the world. 
Parshat Shoftim is asking us to open our eyes every minute of the day to the truth that is in the world. To find it, to adopt it and to let it change our lives, as if it was the revealed word of God. But we must always remember that it must also stand the test of time. We always have to be open to learn something new, something important, something that will help us lives our lives better, to make our friendships better, and to make our world better. We must constantly see what is true and live our lives by the lessons truth teaches. 
May God always help us reject the lies and to love truth, wherever we find it as we say….
Amen and Shabbat Shalom


Fri, March 24 2023 2 Nisan 5783