While there are numerous factors that contributed to the current economic turmoil, corporate fraud is at the top of the list. Everyone has heard of the $50 billion Madoff scandal, but the other day I read about a smaller (a mere billion dollar) one that came out of an Indian IT company called Satyam, which ironically means “truth” in Sanskrit. What caught my eye was the way that the founder and chairman of the company explained how the fraud began. What was meant at first as an attempt to mitigate a minor accounting discrepancy eventually “attained unmanageable proportions as the size of the company operations grew”.
And then I thought about how wisely the Torah tells us “mid’var sheker, teer-chak” (from a false thing, distance yourself). There’s no other prohibition in the Torah where such language is used. We’re not told to distance ourselves from murder, from non-kosher food, from theft even.
So why is falsehood described in such physical terms, and why is the distance necessary? Perhaps because of the good ol’ proverbial slippery slope. And because the Torah understands how easy it is for a white lie to turn into a whopper (and I don’t mean the kind you get at Burger King).
We’re told to stay far away from that slope, because if we get near it, we’re likely to slip down it. Simple enough, except for the fact that stretching the truth is necessary at times, and the Talmud backs me up on this one.
Let’s call it the “case of the ugly bride”. Who, upon seeing a less than attractive bride on her wedding day, would refrain from telling her that she’s beautiful just because technically it’s not so true? What would you say instead when you saw her? You smell nice? The flowers are lovely? Nope. Doesn’t work. A bride must be told that she looks beautiful on her big day.
And so the Talmud struggles with how to reconcile the Torah’s commandment of distancing oneself from falsehood while at the same time remembering that lying sometimes spares another person’s feelings. Rabbi Hillel, in the Talmud, explains that beauty is a relative term, so calling the bride beautiful is not dishonest as her groom finds her beautiful. But I have a different take.
I don’t see a contradiction between these two ideas because the falsehood that we’re told to stay away from in the Torah is the self-interested type. It’s the kind of falsehood that could grow and grow as we try to protect or promote or advance ourselves. When truth-stretching is done to preserve another person’s feelings, however, the desire to push the lie further and further just isn’t there. There’s no slippery slope, so there’s nothing to distance ourselves from. And that’s the whole truth.