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Rosh Hashana Day 2, 5782        September 8, 2021

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

L’shana Tova U’metuka – I wish everyone a happy and sweet new year.
Five years ago, I was watching the news, shortly after Donald Trump became President of the United States. The news commentator had a problem. The President had said that day something that was undeniably false. It could be proven wrong. There was clear evidence that the President had told a lie. The commentator didn’t know what to do. It felt wrong to call the President of our country a liar but there really was no other way to describe what he had done. The commentator actually had to apologize to his viewers, but he had no choice given the situation he was reporting. I made a note that this was the beginning of a new era in American Politics.
The Sages of the Talmud declared that Truth is the seal of God. “God is Truth and God’s Torah is Truth,” they exclaim. There is nothing better than the truth. There can be no justice without truth. Education and business are built on a foundation of Truth.  Jewish law forbids asking a shopkeeper the price of an item if you have no intention of buying it. So committed are the Rabbis to truth that in the Talmud they tell a fascinating story about a Town called Kushta (Sanhedrin 97a). There are several versions of the story, but the story goes something like this:
The fourth century Talmudic sage known as Rava told the poignant tale of a town called Kushta – a place, where no one ever aged, no one ever died, and no one knew exactly why. 
A corrupt king learned of the town, and enticed by the prospect of eternal life, dispatched two of his wisest counselors to discover Kushta’s secret. Both of them went to the town and thought they had discovered the secret. But when they returned, their ideas did not make the king any younger and so the king had them put to death. Finally, the king decided, “I will go to Kushta myself.” And so, he departed in his royal carriage bringing with him a bag of gold. 
When the carriage passed through Kushta’s gates, the town’s inhabitants gathered around it with great bewilderment. The king emerged. And lifting up his bag of gold so all could see, he announced, “I will reward anyone who can tell me why none of you ever grow old.” The inhabitants turned to one another in astonishment. None of them really knew. 
Again, the king declared, “I promise you I will reward you if you tell me what makes this town so different from any other.” At that, one citizen stepped forward and answered, “In our tongue, Kushta means truth. And in Kushta we speak only the truth. This is what makes us different.” 
Having revealed Kushta’s secret, the individual approached the king for the promised reward. But the corrupt king, seeing no value in this information, shoved the man away. The townsfolk cried out, “we told you our secret. We want our gold.” The king brushed them aside, climbed back into his carriage and headed home. Strangely, by the time he reached his own realm, the king was dead. 
But what happened in Kushta was stranger still; the citizens, who had never aged before, suddenly began to. For when the king had broken his word in the town called “truth,” the trust of the entire community was shattered. And today, anyone who visits Kushta will find it no different from any place else.

It was the 18th century philosopher Yitzchak Levi Satanov who once wrote, “Truth lives long and yet does not grow old”. This seems to be the theme of our story. Truth brings long life, even eternal life, but lies bring about death. 
Truth is the foundation of the justice we seek on this Rosh Hashana, this Yom HaDin, this Day of Judgement. According to the central prayer of our Musaf service, Unetane Tokef, even the angels fear this judgement because God only judges with truth. A human judge can’t really know if a defendant is telling the truth or is lying. Even though the witness takes an oath on a bible to only tell the whole truth, sometimes there is no way at all to know for certain who is telling the truth and who is lying. Even the wise King Solomon had to take a sword and threaten to cut a living baby in half in order to discover who the child’s true mother was. Jewish literature is filled with stories of judges who discern the truth by creating clever tests of those who appeared before them. God, however, knows our heart. God knows when we are telling the truth or telling lies. Only God’s justice is true justice because only God is the master of truth. Psalm 85 declares, “Truth springs up from the earth; justice looks down from heaven.” Our judgement today depends on the truth. When we speak truth, there is justice and there is compassion from God. 
We are living in a time where truth is under attack. Everywhere we turn, things that we thought were true and correct are questioned and argued. It is no longer enough to offer opinions about what to do in any situation, what stands behind our opinions are our own personal set of facts. Not since the Nazi propaganda machine during World War II, have we seen big lies touted as the “real truth”. Both Stalin and Hitler, the socialists, and the fascists, used big lies to confuse their citizens so they could create the reality that would bring them the advantage. In the world of propaganda, the bigger the lie the better, because people will believe you if the lie is big enough.
I get in my email at least 5 fact checks a day, sometimes bordering on the crazy, because someone is saying something false as if it is true. Once you start telling big lies, then it becomes open season on lying, and people with personal agendas start building their own cases on a foundation of lies.  As I write this, the non-partisan fact checkers are telling us that: someone is making false claims about vaccinations and UFO’s; someone is spreading false information that President Biden is letting thousands of illegal immigrants into the country without testing them for COVID. The fact checkers affirm that the picture of Gov. DeSantis of Florida wearing a t-shirt mocking masks has not been altered; and they have declared as false the rumor that somebody is setting up “Quarantine Camps” for the unvaccinated in Tennessee. They have debunked the election lies so often that they don’t even include them in the daily total. 
In Pirke Avot, the ethical teachings of the Talmud, in Chapter 5 Mishna 17 we learn: Every argument which is for the sake of Heaven — the end will endure. In an argument for the sake of Heaven, the desired end is to attain the truth. And an argument which is not for the sake of Heaven — the end, does not endure. What is an argument for the sake of Heaven? The arguments between Hillel and Shammai. And (what is an argument) that is not for the sake of Heaven? The argument of Korach and his whole congregation.
We learn that when Hillel and Shammai argued, they stayed on point as they struggled to understand the truth of the Torah. When they taught their arguments in their schools, they taught the opinions of both sides so the students could make up their own minds. They never excommunicated each other and the children of one side were free to marry the children of those they disagreed with. That is what happens when the object is to find the truth. 
Korach, on the other hand, argued extensively with Moshe, trying to ridicule everything that Moses said. Korach asked why a room full of Torah Scrolls needed a Mezuza on the door? Korach asked why a Tallit that was entirely blue still needed a blue thread in its fringes? These questions were not designed to learn truth, they were designed to arouse questions about the leadership of Moses. These arguments were about personal power and conquest and were not for the sake of Heaven. These are the kinds of arguments that were not designed to endure. No wonder that Korah and his entourage were doomed by God to be destroyed. 
Further, also in the same chapter of Pirke Avot, in Mishna Five we learn the seven characteristics of a wise man. A wise man does not speak before one who is greater than he in wisdom, And does not break into his fellow’s speech; And is not hasty to answer; He asks what is relevant, and he answers to the point; he speaks of the first [point] first, and of the last [point] last; concerning that which he has not heard, he says: I have not heard; And he always acknowledges the truth. And the reverse of these [are the characteristics] of a boor.
When I have spoken about truth before, I talk about how difficult it is to discover and teach the truth. In these characteristics of a wise man, we see just how hard it is. It takes humility, patience, and thoughtfulness. A wise person has to ask good questions, stay on the subject, and admit what he or she does not know. But most of all, a wise person acknowledges the truth. Even when it hurts his or her own argument, the truth must hold. 
And if we reverse these qualities, we find the definition of a liar. Liars are self-serving, impatient, brash. They paper over questions and obfuscate by changing the subject over and over again.  They never admit they were wrong and couldn’t care less about the truth. Sadly, this seems to define far too many politicians today both here and around the world. 
Why do people who play fast and loose with the truth seem to do so well? It is because they are telling people what people already want to hear. These liars say they care about others even though their record is that they only care about themselves. They say they want to help others, but they really only enrich themselves. They promise people success beyond their wildest dreams and then blame others when the promises are broken. They are true grifters, con artists, taking money from the gullible by telling them that success is right around the next corner. Tomorrow will be better, they say, but somehow tomorrow never comes.
Truth is hard. It is very hard. It is hard to find and hard to accept. It does not always do what we want it to do. But it is a sure foundation for building our lives. The Midrash Yalkut Shimoni has a whimsical way of teaching this. It notes that the Hebrew word for Truth, Emet, is spelled with three letters, an aleph, a mem and a tav. Each of these letters has two legs, giving them a firm foundation on which to stand. The Hebrew for Falsehood, Sheker, also has three letters, a shin, a kof and a resh. Each of these letters has only one leg so they don’t have the firm foundation and they can topple easily.  Further, the midrash notes that the letters of Truth, Emet, are the first, middle and last letters in the Aleph Bet. This shows how far you have to go to attain the truth. Falsehood, Sheker, is spelled with three letters in a row in the Aleph Bet. It is far easier to acquire Sheker than it is to find Emet. 
In the beginning of the song, The Boxer, singer, songwriter, Paul Simon wrote these lyrics: 
I am just a poor boy
Though my story's seldom told
I have squandered my resistance
For a pocketful of mumbles
Such are promises
All lies and jest
Still, a man hears what he wants to hear
And disregards the rest

Why is our world so filled with lies? Because we hear what we want to hear. I have often said that human beings have an infinite capacity to delude themselves. We see this everywhere. Look at how advertisers pitch products to us on every media platform. We are asked to buy clothing that only looks good on a super skinny model. We are asked to buy exercise equipment used only by models who are extraordinarily fit. We are asked to buy cars that go faster than we would ever think to drive them, and they are filled with beautiful people who for some odd reason, don’t come with the car. Worst of all we are told we can become our best selves if we buy the right brand of liquor and vaping products. There is no end to the products that promise to make us look better in the mirror; but we are only deluding ourselves. Rosh Hashana comes to tell us that we will never be any younger than we are now. In spite of all the promises made in advertising, nothing has stopped us from aging a year since last Rosh Hashana.
Responsibility for the world we create ultimately is in our hands. This is why, what we call “white lies” are difficult to justify. We understand that sometimes we have to choose between truth and peace. Sometimes justice demands truth and sometimes it demands peace. The great Talmudic sage Rabban Shimon Ben Gamliel taught that the world rests on three things, on Justice, Truth and Peace. But it is difficult to balance all three. 
I have done a lot of work with addicts and alcoholics. I have been privileged to help them move through the 12 steps to recovery. I have helped them admit they are powerless in the face of their addictions. I have helped them find God in their lives. To squarely face and admit the wrongs they have done, Step 8 requires the addict to make a list of all the people who have been hurt over the course of their lives. Certainly, these addicts must list those who have been hurt by their addiction, but it is possible that others were hurt even earlier in their life. This is not so different than what we are being called to do during these days of penitence. We need to find those we have hurt in the past year or even in past YEARS and then ask their forgiveness. 
And then comes the ninth step; to find those people who we have hurt and make amends to them for the suffering we have caused. But there is one caveat, amends should be made but only if doing so would not hurt or injure another person more. It is of no use if our making amends causes pain and suffering to someone else. For the sake of peace, we leave these confessions alone. We must not use our own needs to hurt someone else. There are some prices for forgiveness that are too high. To reveal secrets that could tear apart a family or destroy someone’s life work will not bring that person peace. It is better to carry the secret than to harm someone else. The Truth here can wait. 
What has past, has passed. What will be in the future has yet to be decided. We only have right now. The hard truth is that what we do today can make a difference. We can repent from our past mistakes and not carry that guilt into the future to spoil days to come. We can change our actions so that we can be proud of our accomplishments when we come back next year. There is no perfect human being. We are only trying, always trying to improve ourselves, and that takes real work; there are no shortcuts. There are no magic potions, there are no devices that can do the work for us. We always have to face our past and we always have to create our future and we only have now to do all of that work. 
But these holidays also affirm that we already are more than we know. When we recite the Al Het on Yom Kippur, we recite some 44 sins for which we must repent; but if we look at the list, no matter who you are, the vast majority of sins listed are not ones that we are actually guilty of. To be fair, some of them we are REALLY guilty of, I don’t want to get too personal here but when it comes to the sin of Gossip……   OK, I digress…….
Politicians telling lies is nothing new. In our Torah reading for these holidays, even God fudges the truth when Abraham wants to know why Sarah is laughing. She is laughing because she thinks that Abraham is too old to father children. God, who does not want Abraham to be embarrassed by his wife, tells Abraham that Sarah is laughing because she thinks SHE is too old to have children. The rabbis of the Talmud understood that sometimes it is OK to tell a lie when it will preserve peace in a family. They insist that every bride must be praised for her beauty at a wedding because for her groom, she is indeed beautiful no matter what anyone else thinks. To the Sages peace is more important than a lie. If you don’t believe me just answer one question:            “Do I look fat in this?”
The truth is, we are not as good as we can be, nor are we as bad as we think we are. The reason we sit in shul for so long on these days is we have to sort out the real truth in our lives. We have to read about Abraham and Sarah who wait a lifetime for a child and almost lose their son in a test of their piety. We read about Hannah, who can’t see the love she already has. We read about the thirteen attributes of God, El Rachum v’Hanun; God who is gracious and compassionate, patient, kind and faithful, loving and forgiving. We read these attributes so we know what kind of attributes we should aspire to in our own lives. We hear the sound of the shofar, calling us in joy, brokenness, and sorrow. Tekiah, Shevarim, Teruah. It reminds us of the joy, brokenness, and sorrow that we must always face in life. 
And we should leave here knowing that God loves us, God cares about us, and God knows we are not perfect. All we have to do is to take a true look at ourselves and begin to become better. It is not about how many toys we accumulate. It is not about how beautiful we look or dress; it is not about the size of our house or the kind of car we drive. The unvarnished truth is that what matters is what has always mattered: how kind we are, how much we care for others, what good we have done for this world and how we have cared properly for ourselves. Have we seen the true condition of this world and moved ourselves to make it better?
The king who told a lie in the town of Kushta died before he could reach his home. But the lie he told spread distrust and suspicion in Kushta until the residents of that town could no longer trust each other to tell the truth. And so, the blessing of long life, that was the reward of truth, gave way and the people began to age, just like everyone else. 
The lies we tell shorten our lives. The lies we choose to believe, damage our society until we can no longer trust each other to tell the truth. The lies only lead to more lies until there can be no truth. Without truth, nothing is possible. When there are lies, there is only death and destruction. The midrash Pesikta Rabbati notes that according to the Torah, God created everything we find in this world. Rabbi Samuel ben Nachmani said, “we find that the Holy One created everything in this world, only the stuff of falsehood God did not create. Mortals conceived false words out of their own hearts…”
We learn from this that the world was created with truth, but we humans, with the blessing of free will, use our freedom to create false words and lies. God is incapable of making us lie. We have to do it on our own. And just as we are free to tell the truth or lie, we are free to believe the truth or believe the lies. 
But this is not an opening to tell lies. For lies always hurt others. Potifer’s wife lied and sent Joseph to prison. The ten spies, sent by Moses to explore the Promised Land, lied about what they had seen and demoralized the entire people, causing them to be condemned to die in the wilderness. Only the two spies who spoke the truth lived to enter the Land of Israel. 
Sam Rayburn was the longest serving Speaker of the House of Representative in American history. It is said that a reporter once asked him, “Speaker Rayburn, you talk to people all day and make all kinds of promises to them, and yet you never write down a note about what you have promised. How do you keep all those promises straight?” Rayburn replied, “If you tell the truth from the beginning, you never have to worry about remembering what you told someone.”
Once we start to tell lies, we are chained to them forever. Freedom can only come with Truth. We live in an age of easy lies; where nobody has to take responsibility for what they say because everyone knows that everything is a lie. That is why we need to dedicate ourselves to the truth this Rosh Hashana. We must first resolve to remove ourselves from the easy lies we may be telling. We must resolve to be careful in our words and deeds so that we don’t pass along a lie, personally or on our social media feed, even inadvertently.  We must commit ourselves to fact checking what we read before we pass it along. We must resolve that when we are confronted with lies, we will speak up and speak out. We must resolve to do the hard work of seeking out the truth that needs to be found amidst the constant chatter of lies. 
But hardest of all, we must acknowledge the Truth. The truth that others don’t want to hear. The truth that all too often we don’t want to hear. The truth that calls into question some of the basic assumptions we have made in our lives, assumptions that sometimes turn out to have been based in lies. We need the courage to change our minds, to change our actions and then to work to change the world. 
May God give us the faith, courage, and strength to end this era of lies by finding the truth, speaking the truth, and defending the truth and thus do our part to redeem the world, through Truth.                                           As we say…..Amen and L’shana Tova U’metuka 

 

Sat, July 2 2022 3 Tammuz 5782