Is It Always Wrong to Tell a Lie?

If you ask a classroom of fourth graders if it is always wrong to tell a lie, they will tell you with absolute certainty that indeed it is.  Always? What if the truth causes another person harm? What if the truth needlessly hurts a person’s feelings? What if the lie protects a person’s life?

As we get older and learn the nuances of being human, we come to know that absolutes are never really absolutes.  Lying is never okay; that is, until another absolute requires us to lie.  Sometimes telling a lie can save a life.

There is a big lie in last week’s parasha, Lekh L’kha, that is repeated again this week in Va-yera. When I told the Orangetown Jewish Center community about this lie this past Shabbat in my sermon, almost everyone was surprised. The lie is a strange story they never told us in Religious School.  And it happens three times in the Torah. Last week, taking a detour from the Promised Land into Egypt because of a famine in the land, Abraham tells Sarah to lie.  We read in Bereshit 12: “If the Egyptians see you and think, ‘she is his wife,’ they will kill me and let you live. Please say that you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you and that I may remain alive thanks to you.” This week, Abraham tells the lie himself. “Abraham said of Sarah his wife, ‘She is my sister.’” Later in the Bereshit narrative, Isaac repeats the wife-sister lie about his wife Rebecca.  It isn’t exactly the behavior we expect to see from our patriarchs.

Abraham excuses himself to the King of Gerar, saying, “When God made me wander from my father’s house, I said to Sarah, ‘Let this be the kindness that you shall do me: whatever place we come to, say there of me: He is my brother.”
Do we excuse him? Is it ever permissible to lie?  If we place the story in context, we see that God has commanded Abraham to cut off all ties to his history, from his land, birthplace and father’s house. He must go forth with faith in God Who promises the blessings of a nation, a land and a great name.  Here in these early chapters of Bereshit, however, there appears to be a great problem with the fulfillment of these blessings.  The nation is dependent on a wife who is barren, the land is suffering a famine and the man whose name will be great is a nomadic wanderer at age 75.  Can we forgive Abraham for lying on the grounds that he had a God-given mission to fulfill? Can we forgive on the grounds that we wouldn’t be here, a Jewish nation, if a jealous king had killed our patriarch?

Abraham needs to keep moving forward to follow God’s commands.  He took a detour into Egypt, but who among us hasn’t taken a detour along our journey?  We begin the story of our people with difficulty, seeming impossibility, and detours.  Yet Abraham remains filled with faith.

Aren’t our lives like that?  Can’t we be faith-filled and also doubtful?  Don’t we see promise and also famine?  It isn’t okay to lie until we have to lie.  Like Abraham, many of us know what it is to be in a narrow place and act as it seems we must. Do we do the right thing or the absolute wrong thing? Isn’t life that complicated?

Knowing that we will face absolutes and hard choices, that we will make mistakes and go to narrow places, don’t we still set out on the journey?  Don’t we fulfill the command of Lekh L’kha, go to who we are meant to be, every single day?  We need not condemn Abraham as a liar.  Instead, we can see him as a role model for living a life commanded by God in a complicated world.

Rabbi Paula Mack Drill

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