Rav Yosef was very unwell. At one point, they thought they’d lost him, but miraculously, he regained consciousness. When he came to, his father, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, asked him to describe his near-death experience.
“I was in heaven,” responded the young man, “and I saw a topsy-turvy world! Every individual who was on top of things in this world was on the bottom of things in heaven. And everyone who was on the bottom things in this world was on the top of the world in heaven.”
“You didn’t see a topsy-turvy world,” his father replied, “you saw a very clear world!”
מַאי טַעְמָא שֶׁקֶר מְקָרְבָן מִילֵּיהּ, אֱמֶת מְרַחֲקָא מִילֵּיהּ? — שִׁיקְרָא שְׁכִיחַ, קוּשְׁטָא לָא שְׁכִיחַ. וּמַאי טַעְמָא שִׁיקְרָא אַחֲדָא כַּרְעֵיהּ קָאֵי, וֶאֱמֶת מְלַבַּן לַבּוֹנֵי — קוּשְׁטָא קָאֵי, שִׁיקְרָא לָא קָאֵי.
Why are the letters of the word sheker adjacent to one another in the alphabet, while the letters of emet are distant from one another? Because falsehood is abundant, but truth is rare. And why do the letters that comprise the word sheker all stand on one foot, and the letters that comprise the word emet stand on bases that are wide like bricks? Because truth stands eternally and falsehood does not stand eternally.
The Yismach Yisrael explains that the letters of sheker are close because we live in an ‘alma d’shikra,’ a world of falsehood. Heaven is known as the ‘olam ha’emes,’ the world of truth, which appears distant from us. In this false world, sheker seems to reap rewards. But that’s only because this is a false world. Ultimately, sheker will topple over, because its letters only stand on one foot. The truth will endure forever.
Whilst we will only experience the complete view of truth in the olam ha’emes, even in this world, falsehood has a short lifespan compared to the truth. In the short run, lies and falsehood may hold more sway. But lies only last so long, until they are revealed and topple over.
The challenge posed to each and every one of us is to examine the choices before our eyes and ask what the lifespan of that choice will be. Let’s say you’re about to tell a fib. How long do you believe that you can maintain the charade? What will it take to keep up the façade? Will this one lie lead to more and more lies, in order to maintain the ‘truth’ of the initial lie? How long will it take for the house of cards to come toppling down?
It’s not only about what you say, it’s also what you do. The key to determining whether an act is true or false is assessing its endurance. To use a simple example, let’s say you have in front of you a burger and a salad. The burger might make you happy right here, right now. But the salad will make you happier over the long term. It will make you healthier, as there will be fewer calories that will lead to weight gain, and less cholesterol leading to heart disease. In other words, the salad is a truer pleasure than the burger. Its truth lies in its greater staying power.
The same goes for the pastimes in which we engage. A video game might be fun momentarily, but it has zero enduring quality. A game of football, by contrast, may be just as enjoyable, but that’s not what determines its truth factor. What makes it true is the long-term benefit of exercise that will protect your body from ill-health later in life.
The exchange between Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi and his son continues:
“How do we, Torah scholars, fare in the world of truth?” he asks Rav Yosef.
“Exactly the same. Just as we are here, so are we there.”
Torah and mitzvos are the eternal truth. The fact that they have an enduring quality in the olam ha’emes should come as no surprise to any religious individual. The chiddush (brilliant idea) implied by these two rabbis is that even here in this world, the greatest nachas – pleasure and fulfilment – is enjoyed by those who dedicate themselves to spiritual growth and mastery.
Since this world is a false world, all earthly pleasures can never truly provide happiness or a sense of fulfilment. The person who dreams of owning a fishing boat, once acquired, will dream of upgrading to a yacht. The nature of falsehood is that it only has a short shelf life.
The key to happiness in life is simple. Before embarking upon any activity, before making any statement, ask yourself what the lifespan of the choice will be. May truth and longevity forever be your guiding light!