David Sedley
David Sedley
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Parshat Valelech – Truth be told

With so many sources of information these days, it's hard to know what is true - a far cry from when the Israelites got their facts direct from Moses (Vayelech)
A lithograph of the 'ruby amphitheater,' as printed in The Sun. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)
A lithograph of the 'ruby amphitheater,' as printed in The Sun. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

The New York Sun was very much the people’s paper. Founded in 1833 by Benjamin Day, it cost only a penny, far cheaper than the competition, the broadsheets, the “Morning Courier and New York Enquirer” and the “Democratic Chronicle,” which cost six cents each. It wasn’t the first one-cent newspaper — that title went to the short-lived Philadelphia “Cent.” But the Sun ushered in the era of the penny press.

The four-page tabloid’s motto was “It Shines for All.” The Sun was not delivered to the doors of wealthy subscribers, like the other papers, but was hawked by children on street corners. And the stories in the paper were the stories of real people, not only the lives of the rich and famous.

The young Day (he was only 23 when he launched his paper) understood that America had a new literate class, not the elite, but the masses of working people. His paper told their stories.

The Sun was the first paper to list births and deaths, the first to list help-wanted ads, the first to report on crime, and the first to hire reporters to go out and find stories. In 1835, the Sun carried the first sports story, about a fight in a field near Hoboken between Williamson, of Philadelphia, and Phelan, of New York. Human interest stories were the paper’s bread and butter.

Masthead of The Sun. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

In the first issue, published on September 3, 1833, Day wrote, “The object of this paper is to lay before the public, at a price within the means of every one, all the news of the day, and at the same time offer an advantageous medium for advertisements.” A month later, he wrote, “The penny press, by diffusing useful knowledge among the operative classes of society, is effecting the march of independence to a greater degree than any other mode of instruction.”

The Sun quickly became the most popular paper. By 1834 it had the largest circulation of any paper in the United States.

The Sun’s new office on ‘Printing House Square’ in the 1860s. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons).

Today, The Sun is perhaps best remembered for a letter written by an 8-year-old reader named Virginia O’Hanlon. She wrote,

Dear Editor: I am 8 years old.
Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus.
Papa says, ‘If you see it in The Sun it’s so.’
Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?

The answer, written by Francis P. Church, entitled, ‘“Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” became one of the most famous editorials in newspaper publishing history.

Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see… Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy… there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.

Benjamin Day, founder of The Sun

People believed it if it was written in The Sun. So, the story written by Richard Adams Locke and published in a series of six articles beginning on August 25, 1835, was perhaps surprising. It was a report of the discoveries of Sir John Frederick William Herschel, the greatest astronomer of the time. Herschel had built an observatory near Cape Town, South Africa, so Locke claimed he had read these facts in the Edinburgh Journal of Science in an article written by Dr. Andrew Grant.

“Great astronomical discoveries latterly made by Sir John Herschel L.L.D. F.R.S. &c At the Cape of Good Hope,” proclaimed the headline. The stories that followed were revolutionary and shocking. For Herschel had peered through his great telescope – the biggest and best in the world – and had clearly seen life on the surface of the Moon.

The specimen of lunar vegetation, however, which they had already seen, had decided a question of too exciting an interest to induce them to retard its exit. It had demonstrated that the moon has an atmosphere constituted similarly to our own, and capable of sustaining organized and, therefore, most probably, animal life.

Not only plant life, but animal life too, was walking around on the earth’s satellite:

In the shade of the woods on the southeastern side we beheld continuous herds of brown quadrupeds, having all the external characteristics of the bison, but more diminutive than any species of the bos genus in our natural history.

And there was more:

The next animal perceived would be classed on earth as a monster. It was of a bluish lead color, about the size of a goat, with a head and beard like him, and a single horn, slightly inclined forward from the perpendicular. The female was destitute of the born and beard, but had a much longer tail. It was gregarious, and chiefly abounded on the acclivitous glades of the woods. In elegance of symmetry it rivaled the antelope, and like him it seemed an agile, sprightly creature, running with great speed and springing from the green turf with all the unaccountable antics of the young Iamb or kitten. This beautiful creature afforded us the most exquisite amusement.

By this point, everyone was talking about the moon creatures. Even the rival newspapers knew they had been beaten by the scoop of the century. “The Times” wrote that, “Everything in the Sun story was probable and plausible and had an air of intense verisimilitude.” The New York Sunday News advised, “Our doubts and incredulity may be a wrong to the learned astronomer, and the circumstances of this wonderful discovery may be correct.”

The third installment of the news described “not less than thirty-eight species of forest trees and nearly twice this number of plants… nine species of mammilia and five of oviparia.”

Portrait of a man-bat (“Vespertilio-homo”), from an edition of the Moon series published in Naples. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

By the end of the week, the Sun had sold almost 20,000 copies – the next most popular paper had a circulation of only 4,500. In fact, by this point, the New York tabloid was the most popular newspaper in the world. The moon story had made the Sun shine brightly.

The next issue described bats in human shape, that were blessed by “their Creator with some extraordinary powers of locomotion.” These creatures, “were rational beings.” However, “Not perhaps of so high an order as others which we discovered the net month on the shores of the Bay of Rainbows that were capable of producing works of art and contrivance.” The article went on to describe these superior “man-bats” in great details. “They are doubtless innocent and happy creatures, notwithstanding some of their amusements would but ill comport with our terrestrial notions of decorum.”

On August 29th, readers learned more of these superior humanoid moon-beings, and the temple they had constructed:

The great Temple of the Moon, built of polished sapphire, with a roof of some yellow metal, supported by columns seventy feet high and six feet in diameter

Unfortunately, on August 31st, the newspaper ended its column with the sad news that this would be the final installment of the moon discoveries:

One night, when the astronomers finished work, they neglectfully left the telescope facing the eastern horizon. The risen sun burned a hole fifteen feet in circumference through the reflecting chamber, and ruined part of the observatory. When the damage was repaired, the moon was invisible, and so Dr. Herschel turned his attention to Saturn.

By this time, the rival papers were fairly sure this entire story had been a hoax. But the Sun was not quite ready to admit it had fabricated the moon creatures. On September 16th, two weeks after the last installment of Herschel’s “discoveries” had been published, the Sun wrote in an editorial:

Who knows, therefore, whether these discoveries in the moon, with the visions of the blissful harmony of her inhabitants which they have revealed, may not have had the effect of reproving the discords of a country which might be happy as a paradise, which has valleys not less lovely than those of the Ruby Colosseum, of the Unicorn, or of the Triads ; and which has not inferior facilities for social intercourse to those possessed by the vespertiliones-homines, or any other homines whatever?

Some persons of little faith but great good nature, who consider the ‘moon story,’ as it is vulgarly called, an adroit Action of our own, are quite of the opinion that this was the amiable moral which the writer had in view.

Of course, the moon story was a hoax. John Herschel was indeed the greatest astronomer of the day (he was referred to as, “One of our greatest philosophers” by Charles Darwin; Darwin and Herschel are buried side by side in Westminster Abbey). But everything else in the articles was the product of Locke’s imagination.

Portrait of John Herschel. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

Yet, the paper claimed the moon hoax contained a moral message. The lower mammals, the man-bats and the superior beings all living in harmony, each knowing their role in society, would have resonated with New Yorkers of the 1830s, grappling with how to relate to slavery and products made by slaves in the south and imported to the city.

The moon hoax was published in August 1835. Just a year earlier, beginning on July 7, 1834, a weeklong anti-abolitionist riot broke out in New York. And in August 1835, a lynch mob attacked the freed blacks in Washington, DC, in the Snow Riot, which lasted for days.

Was the moon hoax a moral tale of humanoids living in harmony? Or was it encouraging racial differences and hierarchy?

Either way, it was a hoax. Even though little Virginia O’Hanlon had written, “If you see it in the Sun it’s so,” it was not so. It was all a lie. The paper for the people had given the people what they wanted, and in the process become the biggest-selling newspaper in the world. But what the people wanted was not the truth.

Headline of New York Herald, November 9, 1874. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

A few years later, the New York Herald tried a similar stunt with a front-page story claiming the animals had escaped from the Central Park Zoo and were roaming the streets of Manhattan.

The paper wrote 10,000 words on the “Awful calamity.” Filled with gory details and mentions of well-known individuals, people were terrified to leave their homes. A lion and tiger were fighting on 59th Street, a sea lion and rhinoceros were battling it out in the Park, a Bengal Tiger was shot by New York Governor General John Adams Dix on Madison Avenue and a panther attacked worshipers in a West 53rd Street church.

But in fact, not a word of the entire article was true.

Perhaps this was also a metaphor. The paper ran a series of political cartoons in the days and weeks that followed portraying the Republican party as an elephant (the Herald often wrote editorials against the Republican President Ulysses S. Grant planning to seek a third term in office).

But once again, a newspaper had lied to its readers. Could readers have spotted that it was fake news? Sure, they could have read all the way to the end where the Herald stated explicitly:

Of course, the entire story given above is a pure fabrication. Not one word of it is true. Not a single act or incident described has taken place. It is a huge hoax, a wild romance, or whatever other epithet of utter untrustworthiness our readers may choose to apply to it. It is simply a fancy picture which crowded upon the mind of the writer a few days ago while he was gazing through the iron bars of the cages of the wild animals in the menagerie at Central Park.

But even before that, perhaps discerning readers could have picked up on the preposterousness of having a manatee on the loose.

The rhinoceros in the meantime was busy in the work of destruction. In a few moments more he had broken down the pens of the wild swine, the manatee, the American tapir, the two-toed sloth and the pair of kangaroos.

However, many readers did not realize the article was for entertainment purposes only. They were afraid to leave their homes. People ran screaming through the streets. Because if you can’t trust the newspaper to tell the truth, who can you trust?

In fact, we cannot know that anything at all is true without trusting someone or something outside ourselves (I’ll leave it to Descartes to decide if we can even trust ourselves).

We really only have two types of information that can give us truth. There are people and platforms that society as a whole trusts, such as the media, scientists, and, to a lesser extent, politicians, and there are people or things that we trust as individuals, such as our own experiences, things we heard from people we know and trust, or family traditions. All our information comes from one of those sources.

We may believe something if we saw it or heard about it from our parents or our close friends (though none of that guarantees it is actually true), or we may trust information we read in a book, or saw on television or read in a scientific paper (which may or may not be accurate). Somehow, a combination of all that information gives us a “gut feeling” of what is real and what is not.

There are no other options. None of us have the time, resources or ability to research every piece of information on our own to verify if it is true or not. So, we pick and chose what feels right based on the best information we have. Often we trust what we hear from our friends and relatives more, because we trust them as people. But we must also rely on bigger information, gleaned from television, radio or the internet, that none of our close acquaintances can provide us with.

Social media has blurred the boundaries between those two types of information, because now our circle of friends has become much larger, and it is easier than ever to share media. The escaped manatee or man-bats may have seemed dubious when I read it in a newspaper, but when several of my Facebook friends share it with me, and I see my LinkedIn connections and people I follow on Instagram repeating the same story, I now have it not only from the media, but also from my friends, people I trust. It becomes difficult to decide whether I trust a fact because of the scientists who said it, or because of the number of trustworthy people who shared it with me.

Discerning truth from lies has become more difficult than ever before, yet it is perhaps more essential than at any other time in history. We literally make potential life or death decisions based on what we believe to be true.

In this week’s Torah portion, Moses is concerned with ensuring the Israelites can discern what is true and what is not. After 40 years in the desert, the people trust their leader, but he is about to die, so he needs a mechanism that will last beyond his own lifetime.

The Torah states, (Deuteronomy 31:10-13):

Moses commanded them saying, ‘At the end of seven years, on the appointed time in the shemitah year, on the festival of Sukkot. When all Israel comes to appear before the Lord, your God, in the place that He shall choose, read this Torah before all of Israel, in their ears. Gather the people, the men, the women, the children, the residents who are in your gates, so they can hear and so they can learn, and they will fear the Lord, your God, observe to do all the words of this Torah. And their children that did not know, will hear and learn to fear the Lord, your God, all the days that you live on that land, that you are crossing the Jordan there to possess it.

But information given to the masses may not be enough on its own. People may come to distrust what they are told by future kings or priests. Perhaps this would be perceived as mass brainwashing. Many people may prefer to think for themselves rather than be told by others what to believe and how to act.

So, Moses went. The name of the Torah portion is “He went” and the opening verse states, “Moses went and spoke all these words to all of Israel,” (Deuteronomy 31:1).

But the Torah does not tell us where Moses went to.

The commentaries offer various answers. Seforno explains that he went to comfort the nation ahead of his own death. Ramban explains that Moses went from his place near the Tabernacle, to where the people were, to honor them. Malbim says he went to say goodbye to his nation. Kli Yakar explains that Moses wanted to walk to prove that when he said, “I can no longer go out or come in,” he was speaking metaphorically. Or that he went to awaken them to repent.

But perhaps Moses went so that everyone would know that the message was from him. Moses was not only their leader and savior, he was also someone who everyone knew personally, who had proven himself reliable time after time. When he spoke to the entire assembled group, he was like a radio broadcasting a message to the nation. When he went personally to each family or individual, he was like a trusted relative giving them information.

The Talmud (Bava Batra 75a) says that Moses’s face was as bright as the sun, but Joshua’s was only like the moon. Hearing directly from Moses, the people knew it was true in a way that they would never know in later generations when they heard a diluted and weakened reflection of that message from Joshua or later leaders to the masses.

Imagine you had turned on the radio on June 4, 1940, and heard Winston Churchill’s stirring “We shall fight them on the beaches” speech. That was a powerful speech. You may have believed him. But now imagine the British prime minister knocked on your door to deliver the same message. There would be no doubt left in your mind.

This was where Moses went. To deliver the personal message, the intimate truth that could be trusted. He hoped that this would support and strengthen the message to the masses that would be delivered by the kings, priests, and leaders in the future.

Knowing who and what to believe is an issue we all grapple with every day. We must decide whether the information we receive is like the moon hoax of 1835, or the truth of someone we trust with our lives.

I heard about the moon hoax and man-bats on The Last Archive, which addresses concepts of trust and truth. Both The Constant and The Memory Palace had excellent podcasts about the Central Park Zoo hoax.

Beginning on October 12th, I will give a seven online classes at WebYeshiva about rabbis of the Mishna and Talmud (and one class on Chanukah). You can listen to the live or recorded Torah classes on WebYeshiva. I’ve also started sharing more of my Torah thoughts on Facebook. Follow my page, Rabbi Sedley.

About the Author
David Sedley lives in Jerusalem with his wife and children. He has been at various times a teacher, translator, author, community rabbi, journalist and video producer. Born and bred in New Zealand, he is usually a Grinch, except when the All Blacks win. And he also plays a loud razzberry-colored electric guitar.
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