Friday, May 17, 2024

Counteracting The New York Times Fount of Sheker in Our Time

Perhaps the infamous cartoon was the last straw. Perhaps it was the major article praising BDS as the most moral of crusades. Perhaps it was the outrage of blaming Israel for defending itself against hundreds of murderous missiles from Gaza. However, finally, many rabbis and laymen who swore by the “Paper of Record” have cancelled their subscriptions and have sworn off their obsession with the New York Times.

The paper that tried to hide the Holocaust, that never met an anti-Semite it didn’t like, that was mesmerized by the likes of Noam Chomsky and Yassir Arafat, has finally shown its true colors to the world. Publishing something that could easily have been promulgated in Der Sturmer, the Nazi rag, was probably the final blow even for many liberals who still drank the Sulzberger cool-aid that it was above reproach and objective in its reporting.

After decades of self-hating anti-Semitism and anti-Israel lies, many of our brethren are moving on. But to what?

Sadly, most of them are not reading this Torah-driven beacon of truth or any other publication that is honest and truly moral. Yet, perhaps it is at least a start.

The Ramban (Devorim 17:18) writes of a time when there will be a taste of teshuvah in the air. They will not yet say “we have sinned,” but at least they will no longer declare “we have not sinned.” So this may be a good time to examine what sheker really is, how destructive it can be, and how to move on to a world of emes.

Chazal teach us that some civilizations and cultures have always practiced falsehood. In fact, “Canaan commanded his children to stick together and never tell the truth” (Pesachim 113b). This penchant for duplicity became so ingrained that Hashem issued a special prohibition against following in the ways of the Canaanite people. Our aversion to deception is also so deeply ingrained that the Yerushalmi (end of Makkos) teaches that a person must notify his listeners if they think that he is a greater scholar than he truly is, even if the mistaken conclusion is their own fault. Inveterate liars will never be admitted into the proximity of the Divine Presence (Sotah 42a) and Yaakov Avinu was terrified of lying to his father, despite his mother’s reassurances, because prevarication is so foreign to the essence of the Jewish soul. Just dissembling is considered like idolatry itself (Sanhedrin 92a). So it is actually quite natural for our people to react negatively to constant fraud and hypocrisy, especially when it is in print, presented with an aura of authenticity.

We can only hope that the current revulsion with the New York Times’ long obsession with lying about our people will result in some self-searching – cheshbon hanefesh – and at least blinking into the blinding light of the truth on many levels. However, realistically, we cannot rely upon the spontaneous discovery of the truth from people who have spent so long away from its soothing warmth. It is far easier for some to remain in darkness than to reach for the light of the truth that is still tantalizingly far from their easy grasp. Therefore, as always, it is up to us to reinforce our own commitment to emes and rejection to sheker and hope and pray that it will subliminally and mystically affect others as well. Rav Yisroel Salanter taught us long ago that if a Yid in Prague or Yerushalayim speaks lashon hara, another will be mechalel Shabbos in Berlin. However, middah tovah is much greater, so if we would all seize the moment to scrupulously and meticulously bind ourselves to truth at all costs, we might carry the day and transform others by extension. After explaining why Yaakov Avinu had to resort to subterfuge and imposture to obtain the eternal brachos, Rav Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler warns, “Yet we must be ever so cautious to refrain from any hint of deception” (Michtav M’Eliyahu 4:20). In other words, only on the most cosmic of levels, in fighting Eisav on his own turf, should we ever resort to fallaciousness. In our own lives, in dealing with others on every level, the truth should be our guide and ultimate standard. Then we can truly influence the world around us.

How do we go about strengthening our middas ha’emes? Surely it is not impossible. Rav Simcha Bunim of Pershicha used to remind the Chassidim who had spent Rosh Hashanah with him of one thing only. “Please, I beg of you,” he would beseech on Motzoei Yom Tov, “do not utter any falsehoods at all. Truth is the fundamental tool for serving Hashem” (Remosayim Tzofim).

So it is far from impossible. We can do it if we wish.

Rav Akiva Eiger was known, amongst his many stellar qualities, for his rigid adherence to the truth. Sitting upon the seat of the rabbinate in Posen, he was consulted by communities around the world. He once received a query from the city of Blustek in Poland. In his response, he mentioned that he is unworthy of answering questions from outside his city and there were great scholars in Poland who could answer any shaalah. Furthermore, of late he had decided not to answer questions from out of the country, since he was so busy with local issues. “However, this time I must make an exception,” he responded. “You see,” he explained, “at a recent simcha, someone from Blustek had requested that I make myself available to answer questions from their town. I was silent and did not answer, but I am afraid that I may have nodded my head slightly, which might have indicated to them that I will do so. I must therefore respond accordingly, in case I had committed myself” (Bigdei Yesha, Even Ha’ezer, No. 32). We may conclude that we must be careful to keep our word, even if there was just a perception that we promised to do something.

Sometimes a person can tell a lie without uttering a word. Rav Simcha Zissel Ziv, known universally as the Alter of Kelm, once visited a sick man who was so ill that his cries moved all of his visitors. After the Alter’s bikkur cholim, the man’s family and close friends noticed that his pains had apparently subsided. They all asked the Alter how he had pulled off such a miracle. The Alter answered with a smile, “I merely asked our friend, ‘Please tell me: Is it possible that your moans are somewhat exaggerated? Perhaps your suffering does not really warrant such heartrending groans. If so, you should know that you are committing an act of sheker, falsehood. The man admitted that this was indeed the case and ceased his wailing.” Imagine if we were to analyze our reactions to any unpleasantness and carefully assess if we had overreacted. That itself would be a great commitment to the truth in all its forms (Tenuas Hamussar 2:56).

Rav Aharon Kotler zt”l taught and practiced the idea that falsehood can happen without a word or even a sound. An artist once presented a fundraising picture to be used by Rav Aharon’s yeshiva. Rav Aharon refused to use it because some details were not actually a part of the plan for the new building and this would constitute sheker. “Torah cannot be built upon such falsehood,” he said (Marbitzei Torah Umussar 3:263)

We may conclude that our gedolim taught us that sheker comes in many forbidden forms, certainly not limited to words of falsehood. Surely if we were to follow any of these shining examples, we would be able to counteract the “fake news” and horrific lies that have infected so-called reporting in our time. A little bit of light can dispel much darkness and a bit more truth can certainly transform much sheker into the truth for which we yearn.



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