Election 2016: The Power of Emet — Truth

The Rabbis tell a story about Emet, about truth, and about Sheker, falsehood or lying.(Midrash Yalkut Shimoni, Genesis, 3*)

They explain the letters of the word Emet, Aleph-Mem-Tav all stand on two legs, each letter touches the line with two ‘feet’. The letters of Sheker, Shin-Kof-Resh, stand on one foot only — they only have one foot on the line. The lesson from this observation is truthful actions stand firm, and actions based on falsehood do not.

Next, they demonstrate that the letters of Emet, truth, are far from one another — the first, middle, and last letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The letters of Sheker, falsehood, are bunched together at the end of the alphabet. The lesson from this observation is truth is hard to attain — it requires effort over the long haul, along with striving and stretching ourselves to grow. Falsehood is readily at hand, a tempting ‘easy’ path.

As the 2016 presidential election kicks into its next gear, and with more debates to come — I continue to catch the debate summary and highlights the day after rather than watch the entire program. I find much more interesting the fact checking analysis the day after. I’m interested for sure in the ways the candidates propose to tackle the issues of the day, but I’m equally interested in knowing how truthful they are in speaking about other candidates and in speaking about their knowledge of past events, policies, and the other candidates’ proposals.

Does our tradition require that candidates for public office be truthful? If we assume that in its purest form the desire to hold office is to do the most good for the largest number of people, then what role should truthfulness and honesty have for how we decide to vote?

This past Shabbat we heard the Haftarah for Shabbat Shekalim, the story of the new King Yeho’ash, who noticed that after 23 years in office the Temple priests were not following instructions he gave in his first year as King — instructions to the priests that from the donations they received to support themselves they should allocate monies for making repairs to the Temple building. Yeho’ash noticed the Temple building was in disrepair.

How could it be that the people most involved in the life of the Temple, the priests whose job it was to carry out God’s sacrifices, would, in effect, perpetuate a falsehood for over 20 years and let the Temple fall into disrepair?

If the people who represented the nation before God were not true, and King Yeho’ash decided to remove their responsibilities in this area, then should we not also hold our public officials, those who represent us — as who represent our towns, states, and nation — to a high standard of truthfulness in speech and practice?

The Torah is clear that we must strive for truthfulness and honesty. We must have honest measures of length, weight, and capacity, honest balances and weights such that when customers make purchases they can be sure they are purchasing the correct amount at the agreed upon price.(Leviticus 19:35-36)

If we misrepresent ourselves, or others, we are guilty of genevat da’at, literally ‘stealing knowledge’, taking away other people’s God-given right to know the truth of where we stand in relation to others based upon information we have.

And just as King Yeho’ash did, it is up to us to maintain the expectation of honesty in our society. God instructs us to offer constructive critique to our fellow human beings so that we do not bear guilt – guilt from not speaking up since someone else’s dishonesty may negatively impact not only that person but others as well. As Rabbi Shlomo Ganzfried writes in his Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, the one who has the opportunity to prevent the commission of a crime and does not do so will be caught with the crime himself.(KSA 1:95f)

In evaluating a candidate for office we also look to that candidate’s record. Perhaps the candidate is truthful and behaves justly now but he or she may have done the opposite in the past. A question we should ask is whether we should judge negatively someone who argues he or she will work for the benefit of others now but did not do so before. Rabbi Ganzfried teaches, “It is forbidden to derive any benefit from a notorious thief or robber…all of whose property is presumed to be either stolen or robbed”. (KSA 4:73) The presumption here is strong and wide-ranging, but once there is a breach of honesty — unless that breach is corrected by showing the person was not in fact dishonest — there is a presumption we may have that tinges the perception of that person’s future actions.

When my Hebrew High School students and I discussed these questions over the past week, their tragic consensus was that politics inherently involves falsehood and coloring the perception of the truth. In other words, lying, cheating, and misrepresentation are all in the DNA of political systems.

My Hebrew High students are not voting in this year’s election, but we did discuss how we might choose to evaluate a candidate based on his or her record of truthfulness, at the very least within the campaign — perhaps that record would predict how dependable the person would be in office, perhaps…

Our tradition values truthfulness but also recognizes that as human beings we are flawed and each value we teach is a hope, a striving, a prescription for a world that we hope to create. Jewish tradition recognizes moments when a white lie, a careful adjustment of our perception of truth, is required, but 9 times out of 10 Jewish tradition demands from each of us to strive to live by the broad-ranging word Emet that spans the Hebrew alphabet and is our source of strength as the letters of the word remind us how truth makes us all stand up strong on our own two feet.

*Source quoted in Siddur Sim Shalom for Weekdays, p. 10, Rabbinical Assembly — United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, 2002.

About the Author
Neil A. Tow grew up in Maryland in a family active in their Conservative synagogue. After studying International Relations and Spanish in college, he decided to pursue rabbinic studies at Jewish Theological Seminary. His love of learning and teaching continues as he is pursuing now a Master's in Jewish Education from the Davidson School at JTS.
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