A Mussar Gem
Truth is what leads to good and to the fulfillment of HaShem’s will. Falsehood is anything that lends success to the “officer” of falsehood—the yetzer harah/the evil inclination.
– Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, Michtav M’Eliyahu
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Favorable Judgment as a Strategy in Working for Social Justice
Truth as a Prerequisite for Justice
I am grateful to be writing about truth, which has become seriously endangered in our current political climate. Within the media and in public discourse, “truth” nowadays seems, sadly, to depend more on one’s political preferences than on any objective reality. Many of our politicians and commentators slant the “truth” to promote a partisan position to such an extent that even indisputable facts are negated. Our values of honesty and integrity, and even evidence-based science, are under attack as never before.
On the other hand, it must be said that our modern world is complex, and often there just is no simple truth: there may be a preponderance of evidence in a particular direction, but no black and white answers. But social justice—
in order to be just—demands truth. Nowhere is this more evident than in the debate about climate change. Both NASA and NOAA have confirmed that 2016 was the hottest year recorded since the 1880s, when records began. 2016 was the third consecutive year to rank warmer than all previous years, and 16 of the 17 warmest years on record have occurred in the 21st century. We may not be able to prove that human activity accelerates climate change as we can prove the Pythagorean theorem, but the evidence is overwhelming. We are rapidly running out of time to reduce the impact of global climate change. The longer the truth is obfuscated by those with a financial or other vested interest in denying it, the more devastating the effects will be.
I try to acknowledge the truth of climate change by reducing the amount I drive my car, my use of disposable plastic, and the heat I use in my home. Wherever practical, we carpool to events or consolidate errands into a single trip, wash dishes instead of relying on single-use utensils, and wear sweaters instead of turning up the heat. Small things indeed, but if we all do them, we can start to change the expected truth of climate change.
However, it is important to note that the Torah itself is not immune from the question of truth. In the very first parshah in Genesis, we have two conflicting stories of creation: which one is true? The Torah even seems to condone the huge deception that Jacob perpetrated on his brother Esau. But conflicting truths in the Torah become layers of meaning and insight that reveal to me the nature of creation and of humanity, including myself. The Torah’s contradictions are not the source of misdirection, but the source of wisdom, even enlightenment, that Jews have been able to study to their great benefit for 3000 years.
The Mussar concept of shmirat lashon (mindful speech) speaks to truth. Do we exaggerate or tell white lies? I am involved in several social justice activities through my synagogue. It is sometimes tempting to exaggerate the plight of those we are trying to help in order to get more congregants involved. I realize there are two major problems with this approach. First, there is a risk that my deception will become apparent to those I may have misled, and I will lose all credibility when asking for help in the future. Second, I am not treating my fellow congregants consistently with my Jewish value of treating others as I would want to be treated.
“By three things is the world sustained: justice, truth and peace.”
~ Pirkei Avot 1:17
Through a Mussar Lens: To Defend Truth, an Obligation to Rebuke – by Alan Morinis
Truth as a Prerequisite for Justice – by Rose Ashford
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