Kenneth Cohen

Honesty at all costs

The Orchot Tzaddikim speaks of many positive and negative character traits. There is a chapter on arrogance and another on humility. There is another combination of love and hate. And another about generosity and miserliness.

It is interesting that the subjects of truth, “Emet,” and falsehood, “Sheker,” comes near the end of the book. It appears that the author is leading up to these traits. One must first work on his character in these other areas mentioned, before getting to truth and falsehood.

One of the parting addresses of one of my beloved rabbis, as we graduated and entered the rabbinate, was surprising at the time. We were waiting for some pearls of wisdom from our saintly rabbi.

Rabbi Selig Starr taught three generations of students, and learned a great deal about life.
He simply told us, “Never tell a lie, not even a white lie.”

There was some disappointment that we received such a simple and obvious message. But now that more than forty years has passed since that talk, the realization has set in, as to the depth and brilliance of that simple idea.

Truth at all costs, and never telling a lie, is, unfortunately, not cherished by very many people. There are not enough people in this world whose priority is to be careful with their words. This applies to integrity in business matters as well.

It is very frustrating when there is so much Sheker in the world. We do not trust the media or politicians, and we simply do not know who we can believe.

It is understandable why the Orchot Tzaddikim chose to emphasize the importance of Emet and the dangers of Sheker. Clearly, this lesson must be desperately learned in this chaotic world.

About the Author
Rabbi Cohen has been a Torah instructor at Machon Meir, Jerusalem, for over twenty years while also teaching a Talmud class in the Shtieblach of Old Katamon. Before coming to Israel, he was the founding rabbi of Young Israel of Century City, Los Angeles. He recently published a series of Hebrew language-learning apps, which are available at