Sunday, February 26, 2012

Truth ii: On the pursuit of truth

 Truth, Truth shall you pursue’
Targum Onkeles on Deuteronomy 18:20 

People commonly speak about the ‘pursuit of truth’; an expression suggesting that truth is a limited quality or amount of information discoverable through a combination of time and effort. Indeed, many philosophers and scientists venture to discover ‘the truth’: the hidden universalities that make life intelligible and clear, reconciling all contradictions and solving all mysteries. However, though some [misguided] scholars have professed to have found it, the vast majority discovered that the further they pursued truth, the more elusive it became. Like chasing one’s own shadow, the faster one runs after it, the faster it runs away. Is their common experience at odds with the idiom ‘pursuit of truth’? Perhaps truth cannot be pursued; maybe it is not out there waiting to be found?          

On the verse, “If you will listen, listen to the voice of the L-rd your G-d,”[1] the Midrash comments, “Happy is the one whose ‘listenings’ are to Me, hovering always at My doorways; door within door...”[2] Rabbi Yehuda Leib Alter of Ger, the author of ‘Sefat Emet’, in commenting on this Midrash explains how one must never feel he has conclusively grasped a Torah teaching, for its depth is limitless. This, he adds, is implied by the repetition of the word listen in the original verse cited above; that is, even if you have already listened and understood, listen again... and again - for a higher grasp forever awaits you.[3] The Midrash’s metaphor of a door within a door is apt. The Hebrew word for doorway is delet, denoting emptiness, for a doorway is merely an empty space.[4] Yet, it is precisely this emptiness that allows movement from one room to the next. In respect to Torah study, this is interpreted to mean that one who feels ignorant and empty of a teaching’s true meaning is open to advance to a new level of understanding, but one who feels he has grasped the truth, closes the passage before him.[5] Herein lays one explanation for the mitzvah of fixing Mezuzot on our doorposts. The Mezuzah, a section of Torah written on parchment, represents Torah study in general, while the doorway on which it is affixed signifies the sense of emptiness which is a prerequisite for entering that Torah study.[6]          

This elucidation of the Midrash may appear to support the notion that truth is undiscoverable; that a higher truth is forever beyond. The Ben Ish Chai, a 19th Century Sephardic mystic from Bagdad defines truth as reality beyond human grasp, completely unreachable. Following the Haftarah reading, a blessing is recited which concludes, “And all His words are true and righteous”. The Ben Ish Chai, distinguishes  between the terms ‘true’ and ‘righteous’ as applied to G-d, pointing out that the first and last letters of the Hebrew for righteous, צדק, are neighbours in the Aleph-bet, while the first and last letters of truth, אמת, are at the Aleph-Bet’s opposite ends.[7] This, he explains, signifies two ways that G-d governs our lives. Sometimes G-d reveals to us how the puzzle pieces of life fit neatly together; series of events appear straightforward, and Divine providence becomes evident. At these times we refer to G-d’s conduct as ‘righteous’. At other times, however, G-d distances the puzzle pieces from each other, rendering us incapable of connecting them together; events appear to make little sense and leave us asking ‘Why?’ For instance, ‘how can evil happen to a good person?’ or ‘why was I granted success when I was clearly undeserving?’ In such experiences we refer to G-d’s conduct as ‘true’. The term ‘true’ in this context is used to mean that though the pieces of life’s puzzle appear to human beings as disjointed, random, and mismatched, from G-d’s perspective everything is cohesive, precise, and orderly. G-d can connect the Aleph and the Tav, whereas we cannot; Truth is with G-d alone.[8]

This image of truth as reality beyond human grasp certainly reinforces our difficulty with the expression ‘pursuit of truth’.  Not only are continuously higher levels of truth always available to strive towards, but also truth is categorically beyond human comprehension - that is, comprehension of truth proves it is not the truth! Is this a grim end for the idiom ‘pursuit of truth’? Not necessarily. A simple qualification of the expression may help us resuscitate it. As mentioned, the word ‘pursuit’ in this expression seems to suggest that truth is attainable. Although this may apply to ‘minor’ truths such as finding out who spilled juice on the kitchen floor, even ‘minor’ truths have many facets or perspectives. For instance, there may be several valid and effective ways to go about improving a marriage and all approaches may be true. Or imagine someone interpreting a piece of art, generating several alternate perspectives. Are not all of them ‘true’ interpretations? Perhaps, in such cases, ‘pursuit of truth’ can be modified to ‘pursuit of truths’- after all, we need only add one measly letter!

  Alternatively, we may only need to re-frame our interpretation of the phrase ‘pursuit of truth’ in order to realise the expression’s validity to even Divine Truth.  We can reinterpret ‘pursuit of truth’ as implying a never-ending quest. Although the infinite ‘Truth’ cannot be grasped in a finite number of steps, the process of seeking Truth can still be attempted. After all, does anyone seriously believe there will come a point in his learning when there will be no more knowledge to attain? Or that in actualising his potential he will reach the zenith of perfection beyond which progress is impossible? On the ladder to truth, regardless how high one climbs there will always be more rungs above him; Truth charms us into an endless journey.[9] The closest one comes to finding Truth is realizing its endlessness.  Although before Truth one stands empty and ignorant, from within this sense of emptiness may spring a childlike curiosity to explore and discover reality.[10] And the stronger the curiosity, the more openly does infinite Truth glow within. Put in other words, the extent to which one is motivated to ‘pursue Truth’ reveals the degree to which one has found it; one who genuinely feels he has an infinite journey of discovery ahead of him, has indeed grasped Truth. The Kotzker put it elegantly: “the pursuing is itself the finding!”[11]

[1] Devarim, 28:1
[2] Midrash Rabbah, Devarim 7:2
[3] Sefat Emet, Sefer Devarim, Parshat Tavo, 5632
[4] Wisdom of the Hebrew Alphabet, p.78, citing the Maharal
[5] For a similar concept see Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, Likutei Sichot, Vol.1, p.129 
[6] Sefat Emet, ibid
[7] Ben Ish chai, ‘Od Yoseph Chai’, Parshat Nosso
[9] Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, The Thirteen Petalled Rose, Basic Books, 1980, p.133  
[10]  Hence man’s Good Inclination is referred to as a child, Kohelet 4:13
[11] Rabbi Abraham J.Twerski, Rebbes and Chassidim, p.91

Pathway Twelve. Truth: Definitions of truth


 “Any Torah scholar whose inside does not match his outside is not a scholar”
Babylonian Talmud Yuma 72b

When instructing the creation of the Holy Ark to house the Ten Commandments, the Torah instructs, ‘You shall make the ark of wood...and you shall coat it with pure gold outside and inside.”[1] The ark represents the Torah scholar who contains Torah within himself. It was coated with gold on the inside and out to emphasise that “any Torah scholar whose inside does not match his outside is not a genuine Torah scholar”.[2]   A scholar’s external behaviour should reflect his internal knowledge; a code given so much weight by the eminent Talmudic sage, Rabban Gamliel, that he barred students lacking such integrity from his academy.[3]

In the first book of the Torah, Jacob’s sons exemplified such truth in their interactions with their brother Joseph. Concerning the resentment they felt toward him the verse states, “they could not speak any words of peace toward him.”[4] Although this verse does not appear complimentary to the brothers, it actually demonstrates their virtue. Despite their ill-feelings toward Josef, they did not hide the truth through facade or pretence but transparently expressed what they harboured within.[5] This mode of being is called ‘tamim’ - wholeness or sincerity; no masks and no complexity; what you see is what you get.[6]  

A biblical character epitomizing the antithesis of this virtue is Jacob’s father-in- law, Laban. When Jacob arrived at Laban’s home, Laban, “ran to greet him, embraced him, and kissed him.”[7] Commenting on this verse, Rashi[8] explains that Laban ran to welcome Jacob under the assumption that he brought money and gifts. Noticing Jacob came empty-handed, Laban embraced him to check if he was carrying gold in his pockets. Finding no gold, he kissed him to see whether he was hiding jewels in his mouth.[9] Laban’s warm welcome was merely a guise for his greed. It is no irony that the name of this con-artist was Laban, connoting whiteness and purity, for it was on account of his deceptive nature that he bore such a misleading title.[10]             

King David distinguished between ordinary wrongdoing and deception when he exhorted, “Guard your tongue from evil and your lips from deception”[11]; associating evil with the tongue and deception with the lips. Ordinary evil behaviour reveals the wrongdoer’s intentions; thus, one who deliberately injures another reveals his ill-feelings toward him. Evil is therefore identified with the tongue, a single entity. Deceit, however, involves a split between presentation and intention; it is therefore aptly associated with the lips which are divided in two.[12]   

The Torah’s abhorrence of deception also explains why the pig is considered the height of non-kosher. There are two basic characteristics that render an animal kosher: split hooves, an external sign, and re-chewing cud, an internal sign.[13] The camel, for instance, is not kosher because, though chewing its cud, its hooves are not fully split. It lacks the external sign but possesses the internal one. The pig, however, is the opposite: it bears split hooves, the external sign, but does not chew its cud, the internal one. The pig thus signifies one who presents himself well but hides an evil agenda within.[14]   

The absence of the congruence dimension of truth also finds expression in subtle ways. After the passing of the saintly Rebbe of the Chabad movement, Shneur Zalman of Liadi, controversy ignited amongst his disciples concerning the identity of his successor. The two candidates were the Rebbe’s son, Rabbi DovBer, and the Rebbe’s pre-eminent disciple, Reb Aharon Strosheler. Some of the disciples decided to visit the court of Reb Aharon to assess his suitability as a Rebbe. At a Chassidic gathering, Reb Aharon delivered a mystical discourse during which he leapt onto a table in ecstatic dance. One discerning disciple observed that Reb Aharon continued dancing after he lost his original inspiration. He commented, “Reb Aharon is certainly holy, but a Rebbe he is not!” Holy because of his acute sensitivity to G-dliness; but not a Rebbe, who bares the seal of truth, whose every action perfectly reflects his inner feelings and beliefs.[15] 

In Chabad Chassidism this aspect of truth is highly regarded, especially during prayer. While other Chassidic groups encourage prayer with a raised voice, song, and visible fervour, Chabad mysticism emphasizes prolonged contemplation on the nature of G-d and His relationship with the world.[16] A silent, motionless exterior, indicative of deep mental preoccupation, is greatly admired, while external expressions such as song and dance are only respected if they are spontaneous by-products of profuse contemplation. An affected display of enthusiasm or emotion is frowned upon.[17] Indeed, in the Chabad Chassidic past, the label Chitzon, external or artificial, was a most incisive insult, while pnimi, internal and real, a coveted accolade.  The centrality of truth in Chabad philosophy is further underscored by the sentiment expressed by a Chabad Chassid during a private audience with Rabbi Sholom DovBer, the fifth Chabad Rebbe. The chassid complained that his Divine service is artificial and lacks truth. He then added, “And my complaint about lacking truth, it too is empty of truth!” “Furthermore”, he exclaimed even louder, “My complaint about the way that I am complaining is also devoid of truth!” And so he continued until he worked himself into frenzy, fainted, and fell to the floor. The Rebbe then commented to someone present, “This, however, he meant truthfully!”

The Aramaic translation of the verse, “[r]ighteousness, righteousness you should pursue”[18] is ‘[t]ruth, truth should you pursue.’[19] Commenting on the translation, Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Peshischa is said to have quipped, “With truth, truth should be pursued, and not with falsehood!” But how can one pursue truth falsely? Well, not everyone manages to serve G-d with truth, and at times, this can be quite comical. For example, a story is told about a young man from Peshischa who was granted a study in the home of his in-laws shortly after marriage. Attempting to impress them with his diligent Torah study he would start learning loudly whenever he heard movement outside his door. In actuality, the footsteps he heard were only those of a restless cat. Thus instead of learning Torah for the sake of Heaven, he ended up learning for the sake of a cat! However, explains the Kotzker Rebbe, one should not be disheartened if their service of G-d lacks truth. For the verse states, “And these words that I command you today shall be upon your heart,”[20] and not be in one’s heart. This is because G-d does not expect us to maintain congruence of mind and heart all the time, and instructs us to continue learning Torah even if our heart is not with us. For eventually the heart will open and the words placed upon it will enter inside.’[21]  

This aspect of truth is intimated by the Hebrew word for truth, ﬡמת, which consists of the first, middle, and last letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The first letter is aid to represent a person’s mind; the middle letter, feelings, and the last letter, behaviour.[22] This implies that truth is attained when one’s entire being is aligned and consistent. Furthermore, when rearranged, the letters of the word Emet spell ‘Etam’- I shall become sincere or whole.[23]


“The lip of truth is established for eternity; but momentary is a false tongue”
Proverbs 12:19

   A second meaning of truth in the Torah is continuity. This definition of truth may be inferred from a section of Talmud discussing whether the branch waived during the festival of Sukkot may be taken from the “Hirdoff” plant.[24] The Talmud rejects this possibility by citing the verse, “You shall love truth and peace.”[25] Rashi explains that Hirdoff is poisonous, and thus represents neither truth nor peace.[26] Poison obviously contradicts peace, but how is it at variance with truth? Since truth connotes continuity, poison, which ends life, is aptly considered to be its opposite.  Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, in his classic work, Tanya, employs this connotation of truth when distinguishing between the love of G-d that the enlightened Tzaddik arouses during contemplative prayer and the love aroused by one of lower spiritual stature. The Tzaddik, he explains, is capable of maintaining love for G-d beyond formal prayer, when re-entering daily life, the other, however, cannot.[27] The former, he comments, possesses the attribute of truth via continuity while the latter lacks it.[28]

The transience of falsehood is beautifully illustrated by the Midrash which relates how falsehood sought refuge from the Great Flood by entering Noah’s Ark. Noah, however, refused it entry because it lacked a mate. Falsehood subsequently approached loss, requesting they become mates and enter the ark together. Loss asked, “What will you give me?” To which falsehood replied, “Whatever is acquired through me will be given to you.” With that, loss agreed.[29] The 17th Century mystic, the Maharal of Prague, explains that Noah only accepted male and female pairs into his ark because they have continuity. This principle, he adds, also applies to spiritual qualities. For instance, the concept of giving is meaningless without that of receiving, for there is no one to give to; and the concept of receiving is senseless without that of giving, for from whom does one receive? Accordingly, since falsehood lacked a mate and could not survive, it turned to loss for partnership.

Since falsehood is masculine/active, and loss, feminine/passive, they are complimentary qualities. People actively lie to achieve something, but no-one one actively loses something; rather, loss happens to them. In real life their union implies that whatever is actively achieved via falsehood is lost passively.[30] All falsehood eventually loses its existence. Herein rests the paradoxical existence of falsehood: for continuity’s sake falsehood has a partner; but its partner is loss - a form of discontinuity. In other words: discontinuity allows falsehood to continue!

Note that the concept that truth is eternal does not imply that truth is continually apparent to humanity. In a Talmudic dialogue between a Roman governor and the Sage Rabbi Eliezer, the governor cites the passage, “The lip of truth is established for eternity; but momentary is a false tongue.”[31] The Governor argued that since the Roman Empire had already maintained its rule for centuries while the reign of Jewish Monarchy was short-lived, Rome exemplifies the first phrase of the verse, while Jewish sovereignty, the second phrase. Rabbi Eliezer retorted, “If the verse read, ‘The lip of truth is established forever’, in the present tense, your claim would be valid. However, it states, ‘The lip of truth shall be established forever’, in future tense. Presently, falsehood reigns; only in the future will the ultimate truth become apparent.”[32]

The continuity aspect of truth is alluded to in the Gematriya, numerology, of the Hebrew word for truth.[33] One method of Gematriya, called ‘Mispar Katan’, reduced value, involves reducing numbers to their root in the 1-9 integers. Accordingly, 40 becomes 4+0 = 4, 135 becomes 1+3+5= 9, etc. Applying the ‘mispar katan’ method to the word, מת, truth, yields 9: 

  = 1, מ= 40, ת = 4; thus, 1+ 4 + 4 = 9.[34]

What is the connection between truth and the number 9? The digits of all its multiples always add up to nine, reflecting the unchanging, continuous nature of truth.[35]

            For instance:  9x2=18; 1+8=9,    9x3=27; 2+7=9,   9x4=36; 3+6=9..., etc.  

Building on this idea, the Midrash asks why the Torah begins with the letter Bet, the second letter of the Aleph-Bet, rather than the Aleph, the first letter.[36] The first three words of the Torah emphasize the concept of truth, to impress that the foundation of the Torah is truth.This is intimated by combining the last letters of the first three words together: ‘Bereshit bara Elokim’- בראשית ברא אלקים  which spells Emet, truth.[37] The letter Bet is consistent with this theme since adding every corresponding group of three letters in the Aleph-Bet starting with the letter Bet consistently yields 9, the reduced numerical value of Emet - אמת.[38]

For instance:

Bet (2) + Gimmel (3) + Dalet (4) = 2+3+4 = 9

Chet (8) + Tet (9) + Yud (10) = 8+9+10 = 27, 2+7 = 9

Chaf (20) + Lamed (30) + Mem (40) = 20 + 30 + 40 = 2+3+4 = 9

However, when starting with the letter Aleph, adding the corresponding groups of three letters consistently yields six, the reduced numerical value of the word sheker, falsehood – שקר.[39]

 For instance:

Alef (1) + Beit (2) + Gimmel (3) = 1+2+3 = 6

Zayin (7) + Chet (8) + Tet (9) = 7+8+9 = 24; 2+4 = 6

Yud (10) + Chaf (20) + Lamed (30) = 10 + 20 + 30 = 1+2+3 = 6

Furthermore, continuity is also implied by the letters of Emet which span across the entire Aleph-Bet.[40] This reflects how truth endures through time; from its beginning to its end. In contrast, the letters of the word Sheker are bunched together side by side toward the very end of the Aleph-Bet, indicating the transience of falsehood.[41]        


                                                “Truth has legs; falsehood has no legs”
                                                                                      Tikunei Zohar 425 

A Rabbi once approached Rabbi Nachman from Breslov for advice. He was offered the position of communal Rabbi but was unsure whether to accept the role.  Rabbi Nachman responded, “If you accept the post, your ‘Grace After Meals’ will suffer considerably!”[42] What did Rabbi Nachman mean? Some people pray intently in private, where there is minimal distraction, but become distracted in public. Others, however, focus better in group prayer, perhaps uplifted by the communal energy. However, they fail to generate the same level of devotion when alone. Neither type prays with independence, for their concentration level during prayer depends on their surroundings. One definition of truth is independence, in this sense to seal one’s prayer with truth one must be able to pray independently; that is, equally well in private and public. We may now interpret Rabbi Nachman’s reply to the Rabbi. Rabbi Nachman cautioned him that as community Rabbi, he would be constantly in the public eye, and his ability to serve G-d with sincere devotion would suffer on account of his increased self awareness. In essence, Rabbi Nachman was intimating that this individual’s Divine service lacked the quality of truth and would thus deteriorate significantly under these new conditions.[43]

The Vilna Gaon once asked the Maggid of Dubno to rebuke him. However, the Gaon was so righteous that it was difficult to do. The Maggid reflected and finally reproached: “It is easy to be righteous within the halls of torah study. Let me see you go out among the people, will you still remain righteous then?!” This rebuke challenges the independence of the Gaon’s spiritual level; does it hinge on an environment conducive to spirituality or would it survive the sensually tempting atmosphere of the outside world? Essentially, the Maggid’s rebuke questions the truth of the Gaon’s spiritual level.[44]      

The concept of independence as an essential characteristic of truth can be seen at the burning bush, where G-d instructed Moses to liberate the Jews from Egypt. Moses asked the enigmatic heavenly voice, “Who should I tell them is sending me?”[45] Why did Moses seek the name of the being charging him with the mission? After all, a name appears to be a superficial aspect of an entity. In fact, a Hebrew name reveals an entity’s essential being and purpose.[46] As an example, observe the names of the three angels who visited Abraham after he circumcised: Michael, meaning ‘like the divine quality of kindness,’[47] shared good tidings; Gabriel, meaning ‘strength of G-d’, destroyed the depraved cities of Sodom; and Rafael, meaning ‘healing power of G-d, came to heal Abraham.[48] The names clearly reflect the nature and deeds of the angels.   

Aware of this, Moses wished to discover the nature of the being sending him on the mission. In particular, he wanted to know whether the being was dependent upon some higher force, or whether it is supreme and independent. This was important to Moses on two counts: firstly, he was only prepared to serve the Supreme Being, and secondly, he understood that if the being was dependent on other forces for its existence, it may cease existing during his rescue efforts, resulting in him losing support and failing.[49] G-d’s response was the famous היה שר היה - “I am that I am”.[50] Meaning, I am whatever I choose to be, nothing influences Me; I am completely independent. Rabbi Albo explains that the numerical value of the word היה, ‘I Am’ is 21 while the term שר - ‘that’- serves as a multiplication sign. The full phrase, ‘I am that I am’ thus translates into 21 x 21, which equals 441; the same numerical value as מת - truth.[51] 

But one may puzzle as to why G-d chose to reveal the truth of Himself and Torah through Moses, who suffered from a severe speech impediment. Unlike falsehood which is often disguised in eloquent or sophisticated terms, or provided with other flash packaging to have impact, truth stands independently, its power stemming from within itself. The fact that the Torah was communicated by one lacking oratory eloquence and charm serves to highlight its truth.[52]  

  The value of independence in divine service is illustrated in Lot’s rescue from Sodom. We are taught that Abraham’s nephew, Lot, was saved from the destruction of Sodom on account of a particular merit. When Abraham and his wife Sarah were crossing the Egyptian border, Abraham prudently told the Egyptian authorities that Sarah was his sister.[53] Lot, also present, remained silent, notwithstanding his knowledge that the Egyptians would reward him immensely for such disclosure. However, Lot performed a seemingly more impressive deed when he risked his own life to provide visitors to Sodom with hospitality and protection from the Sodomites.[54] Why would restraint from treachery grant Lot greater merit than a self-sacrificing act of hospitality?

The importance of hosting guests was Lot’s second nature, inculcated in him while he grew up living with Abraham; it was not his own moral achievement. However, to curb his strong proclivity toward greed, Lot had to apply much conscious effort and control; he had to struggle with his nature.[55] In his silence, he displayed moral independence; in his hospitality, he did not. It was his expression of ethical independence, of self standing truth, that prolonged his life; that commensurately kept him standing when everything was collapsing around him.[56]     

This definition of truth also explains why Maimonides says, “Receive the truth regardless of its source.”[57] Since truth is independent, it stands separate from the human mind. Therefore, even if an unethical, dishonest, or foolish person states the truth, you should accept it from him, for he did not produce it, but merely channels it. And, though our Sages forbid learning Torah from immoral people, this is primarily because one can be influenced by their disrespectful attitude and coarse behaviour.[58] The Torah they teach, however, remains true and untainted. Therefore, Torah scholars of great piety and wisdom, impervious to negative influence, would accept truth from such people.[59] However, ideas and philosophies of mere mortals cannot be received from merely anyone since the fool is likely to produce foolish ideas, the unethical person, immorality, while the ignorant offers conjecture and guesswork with the confidence of omniscience. Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson stressed this distinction in his response to a letter from a young man doubting the veracity of Torah because of the inappropriate behaviour of various people in his Torah academy. Rabbi Schneerson said:  

“If a teacher whom you respect will say two times two equals five, it is incorrect; and if a teacher whom you do not respect says that two times two equals four, it is nevertheless correct; for truth is independent of the one who states it.”[60] 

Perhaps the most extreme example of truth being acknowledged despite its source is the case of Bilaam and his donkey. While riding his donkey to curse the Jews, the donkey deviated off the road, mildly injuring Bilaam. Enraged, he began beating his donkey. Suddenly, the donkey spoke up and assertively reminded Bilaam of all the benefit it had provided him over the years.[61] Upon hearing the rebuke, Bilaam fell silent; the donkey’s words were distinctly and incontestably true.[62]

Observing the forms of the three letters comprising the word מת we find that each letter has two ‘legs’. This signifies that truth can stand on its own [without external support.] In contrast, the letters of the word sheker - שקר, meaning falsehood, have only one ‘leg’ each; reflecting the instability and dependence of falsehood.[63]


    “Truth is the dot in the centre of a circle”
       Abraham Ibn Ezra 

In Sefer HaIkarim, Rabbi Albo defines truth as the alignment between three factors: the external world, the perception of the world, and the communication of one’s perception. If one perceives an object accurately but fails to communicate it with precision, or accurately communicates it but errs in his initial construal, he deviates from Emet. Only one who correctly perceives an object and relays it faithfully is in sync with Emet. This chapter explores three dimensions of accurate perception, breadth, depth, and length, as well as the importance of accurate communication. [64]

Breadth perception:

  Imbalanced perception blinds the mind’s eye from the truth, detaching a person from reality.  An inclination toward kindness, for example, brings one to view the positive features of an object while ignoring the negative. Conversely, a tendency to criticise causes one to caricature the negative aspects while overlooking or downplaying the positive. However, if a person remains centred and neutral, one can gain awareness of both the positive and negative elements of an issue and perceive it accurately. Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson articulates this definition of truth in the context of spiritual self appraisal:        

“Truth is the middle path. An inclination to the left [to be] overly stringent with one’s self and find faults or sins not in accord with the truth, or an inclination to the right, [to be] overly indulgent, covering one’s faults or being lenient in demands of divine service out of self love – both of these ways are false.”[65]  

When Moses discovered that a fellow Jew had informed on him to Pharoah, he exclaimed, “In truth, the matter has been discovered.”[66] Rashi explains that at this point Moses realized that G-d had answered his bafflement why Israel deserved Egyption oppression. The Kotzker Rebbe asked why the messanger hand picked by G-d to redeem the Jewish people from Egypt, was made to see the Jews in such a negative light. The Sefat Emet answered that it was specifically because he was sent to help the people that he needed to recognise their negative traits so that he can know the obstacles that he faces and how to help the people correct themselves.[67]   

The quality of kindness, associated with the right, and sternness, identified with the left, are signified by the first and last letters of the word מת, truth.[68] , the rightmost letter of the Aleph-Bet represents kindness, while ת, the leftmost letter, signifies sternness. Meanwhile, the middle letter of Emet, מ, is the centremost letter of the Aleph-Bet, representing the ability to remain neutral and combine the two opposing qualities in alignment with reality.[69]

Note that the letters of Emet are equally distributed across the Aleph-Bet, signifying a balanced perspective, whereas the letters of the word sheker, falsehood, are grouped together toward the far left of the Aleph-Bet, signifying a lopsided or distorted vantage point.[70] 

The fact that the first and last letters of the word Emet form the outer limits of the Aleph-Bet also demonstrates another lesson concerning accuracy of perception. Although an accurate perspective does not overstep the boundaries of reality - as do exaggeration, distortion, or pure fabrication - accuracy requires one to extend to its outermost limits to perceive an issue fully, as opposed to selectivity, understatement, or sugar coating. Discernment of truth requires going to the outer boundaries of an issue, to perceive it fully, but not to cross the boundary through any additions.[71]

Depth perception:

“Do not look at the barrel, but at what is in it; there is a new barrel filled with old wine, and an old barrel that does not even contain new wine.”
Pirkei Avot 4:27

Everything in existence consists of inner and outer dimensions; the fruit and the peel. An individual capable of removing the peel to behold the fruit may perceive the truth of a matter.[72] At a superficial level, this principle can be applied to the appraisal of products up for sale. One needs to distinguish between the true value and function of a product from the hype, colourful marketing strategies, and brand names which embellish it. Advertising usually exaggerates a product’s worth while minimizing its drawbacks.

A poignant and morally significant example of depth perception involves the perception of a person. Composite of a body exterior and a soul interior; his essence is his soul. True perception of a person involves viewing him as predominantly his soul, with his body serving as a medium that affords the soul expression in the material world.[73] The famous 20th Century psychiatrist and philosopher, Victor Frankel, articulated the dramatic implications of how one views a human being.[74] Emphasising the value of the body a person’s worth becomes commensurate with his ability to contribute to society, especially economically. Consequently, the elderly, disabled, and mentally ill are deemed less valuable and inferior to the healthy and capable. However, by emphasizing the soul, the divine element within a person, every individual, regardless of his instrumental value, is intrinsically priceless; possessing dignity by virtue of his existence and not on account of what his body can achieve.[75]

Frankl’s view of valuing a person’s soul helps one keep optimistic in the case of mental illness and age. While the body may age or suffer ill-health, the soul remains eternally whole and perfect. During physical or mental illness the soul is merely incapable of expressing itself effectively through the body. Healing, then, is essentially an optimistic attempt to help the perfect and vibrant soul express itself through the body again, be it by restoring coherence and clarity to a person’s thinking, or by dressing his physical wounds. In contrast, when only the body is valued, one who is ill appears to have become disfigured and imperfect in his essential core, and the healing process becomes a relatively pessimistic or incomplete one.[76]                  

The Zohar states that there are three layers to the Torah: the garment, the body, and the soul.[77] The ‘garment’ refers to the narrative, the stories about Adam and Eve eating from the forbidden tree, Noah surviving the devastating flood, Abraham’s interactions with G-d, and the journeys of the Children of Israel through the wilderness. Garments are the most external and visible aspect of a person, as Torah narrative is the most accessible layer of the Torah. The ‘body’ refers to the mitzvot of the Torah. The mitzvot consist of 248 positive precepts, corresponding to the 248 limbs of the human body, and 365 prohibitions, corresponding to 365 primary sinews.[78] When a Jew fulfils a mitzvah, he sanctifies the corresponding limb utilized to perform that mitzvah.[79] The mitzvot are thus seen as a metaphysical body, or more specifically, the limbs of G-d.[80] The ‘soul’ refers to Kabbalah, the mystical secrets. Unlike the garments and the body which are apparent to the naked eye, a person’s soul is invisible; glimpsed only through the body which it animates. Similarly, while Torah narrative and law are apparent, the Kabbalah mystical dimension is concealed. Thus, though every episode and law, and indeed, every nuance of a single letter in the Torah,[81] signify the deepest truths about reality, they are imperceptible to the uninitiated eye. It is the soul of the Torah that the Zohar refers to as the ‘True Torah.’[82] 

Ultimately, the entire natural world is a mask veiling the Divine creative energy which brings it into being.[83] A concise Midrashic parable relates this theme to the nature of Shabbat observance:

‘To what can [the function of Shabbat] be compared? A king had an elegant ring made for him but found it lacking something: his insignia. Similarly, [after G-d created the world He noticed] it was lacking something: Shabbat‘.[84]

The ring alludes to the natural world, which in Hebrew, Teva, is cognate with the word Taba’at, a ring.[85] The obvious parallel is that nature functions in repetitive ring-like cycles; of which the orbiting planets, the water cycle, reproduction, the seasonal cycle, and the rhythmic circulation of blood, are examples. Furthermore, like a ring, nature appears to have no beginning or end, giving the impression that it always existed. Finally, because the natural world was created in six days, it is associated with that number. According to the idea that numbers have geometric parallels, six corresponds to a circle[86] - a two-dimensional ring:

1 = point                                                     4 = square            


2 = line                                                      6 = circle               

3= triangle                                                                                                              


After the six days of creation, nature concealed the Creator; the ring was missing the King’s signature. Therefore, at the conclusion of creation God bestowed the world with Shabbat rest during which people withdraw from a preoccupation with the natural world and focus their attention on its Creator. Hence the word Shabbat is related to both rest (Shev) and return (Shuv) since rest from work affords people the ability to return their attention to the Creator. Shabbat is thus the Creator’s signature on His cosmic ring. Note that the ‘Mispar Katan’ of the word Sheker, falsehood, is 6, the number related to nature; while the ‘mispar Katan’ of Shabbat is 9, the same as that of Emet, truth. Shabbat, which allows one to pierce the appearance level of our world, is associated with truth.

The definition of truth as depth perception is expressed by the passage, "Rosh devarcha emet - The beginning of Your utterance is truth."[87] What is meant by the beginning of an utterance? There are two basic elements to human speech - the non-verbal thought that one wishes to communicate, and the translation of that thought into the symbols of language which allow the thought to be communicated. The above passage refers to the non-verbal thought which precedes speech and inspires it; the core of the speaker’s communication.[88] However, listeners commonly fixate on particular peripheral phrases or points  made by the speaker – especially when a phrase is emotive, vivid, or carries personal meaning for the listener – and lose sight of the main idea being shared, the ‘truth’ of the speech. This is a profound metaphor for our experience of the world which is created by Divine ‘speech’; a fact explicit in the biblical account of creation where the expression “And G-d said” precedes almost every act of creation.[89] As human speech consists of the two aspects mentioned above, the non-verbal and the verbal, Divine speech consists of these elements as well. The ‘beginning’ of Divine speech’ refers to G-d’s ultimate purpose behind Creation, the fulfilment of the Torah, while the incomprehensibly complex combinations of letters and words of Divine speech, which serve to communicate the initial thought, is what creates the diversity of objects and events within our world, each being a different combination of the letters of Divine speech.[90] An individual who focuses on the ‘beginning of the speech’, the Divine intention underlying creation, is connected to the deepest Truth of creation; but one overly attached to specific objects or experiences – cars, houses, honour, lust, etc - loses sight of the ‘beginning of the utterance’, in a sense distracted by particular words or phrases of G-d’s speech.[91] 

This ability to distinguish inner and outer dimensions of objects or events is suggested by the word מת which divides into two parts, the letter and the word מת – meaning death.[92]  The comprises three smaller letters: י (Yud) at its upper right, another י at its bottom left, and a tilted ו (Vav) linking the י’s together.[93]  י is numerical value 10 and ו is 6. The total numerical value adding up to 26; the same as the ineffable divine name, the Tetragrammaton, which the Zohar refers to as the soul of existence.[94]  The , then, alludes to the divine inner essence, the soul of an entity, while the word מת alludes to the exterior shell which loses its meaning or existence if the inner core is removed. When is present, the word spells truth, but if removed, it spells מת – death.

Accurate communication:

‘If you add to truth, you subtract from it’

Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 29a

‘Half the truth is a whole lie’

Yiddish Proverb

Accuracy of verbal communication is exemplified in the Torah by Abraham and Jacob who independently and ironically emphasized its importance while engaging in deception. As Abraham entered the land of the Philistines, he introduced his wife Sarah as his sister to avoid personal danger. Avimelech, the Philistine king, then brought her to his palace for sexual relations.[95] G-d, however, appeared to Avimelech commanding him to return Sarah to her husband. After obeying G-d’s instructions Avimelech rebuked Abraham for having deceived him.[96] Abraham responded by re-asserting that in actuality Sarah is his sister. Abraham’s father was Sarah’s grandfather, since Abraham married his brother’s daughter. To some extent, Torah considers grandchildren as children of the grandparent.[97] Thus, both Abraham and Sarah are children of Abraham’s father; Abraham fully, and Sarah, the granddaughter, partially.   

Jacob employed a similar type of fib. His mother, Rebecca, instructed him to deceive his father, Isaac, into bestowing him with the first born blessings intended for Esau, Jacob’s twin brother. In order for Jacob to accomplish this task, he needed to pretend to be Esau. When he came before his blind father, Isaac asked him, "Are you my first born Esau?" To which Jacob replied, "I am Esau your first born."[98] Our sages clarify that Jacob intended two distinct statements with his reply; the first being, “I am” [I am who I am], and the second, “Esau your first born" [Esau is your first born].[99] Jacob’s statement was thus true, albeit ambiguous. It was Isaac’s interpretation of the statement that was false. In both instances our patriarchs were in circumstances that permit lying: Abraham was protecting his own life, concerned the Philistines would kill him to deliver his wife to their king,[100] and Jacob was instructed by his prophetess mother to act deceitfully.[101] Nevertheless, both patriarchs were careful to make equivocal statements likely to be misinterpreted by the listeners, as opposed to direct falsehood. 

Of course, ordinarily, accuracy of language alone is insufficient, one must be accurate concerning what one intends to convey through the language as well. The Talmud tells the case of a lender who brought a borrower before a Bet Din - a Jewish court - and demanded the immediate repayment of his loan. The borrower, however, claimed he had already returned the sum,
so the court obliged him to make an oath. Having hid the owed amount of money inside the hollow of his cane, the borrower asked the lender to hold it for him while he held the Torah scroll to make the oath. Holy scroll in hand, he proceeded to swear that he already placed the money into the lender’s hand. The lender, enraged by the audacity, snapped the borrower’s cane and the coins spilled onto the floor. It emerged that the borrower was technically correct: he had indeed placed the money owed into the lender’s hand!
The borrower was clearly a scoundrel, but did he lie under oath?
The Talmud concludes that he did. For not only must the literal meaning of one’s words be true, but the meaning one intends them to convey as well.[102]

The Maharal of Prague explains how careful one must be when describing a situation. Even the slightest deviation from truth, he explains, is already classified as falsehood, a notion intimated by the word Emet. The first letter of Emet, the Aleph, has a numerical value of one, denoting the smallest amount. If the Aleph is removed from the word Emet, the remaining letters spell met - death. Death and falsehood are one and the same, for death involves existence deteriorating into non-existence, just as lying involves transforming an existence, something that really happened, into a non-existence, something that did not happen.[103] The message is therefore clear: if even an iota of the truth is missing, it is no longer truth, but falsehood.[104] 

The Maharal further explains the Gemara which associates truth with the letter Tav and falsehood with the letter Shin; Tav being the final letter of Emet while Shin, the first letter of Sheker.[105] Why, he asks, is the Gemara inconsistent in the letters it uses to represent the above two concepts; using the first letter of one word and the last, of the other? Emet, he clarifies, is represented by Tav because truth is the ‘Divine seal’,[106]and a seal is impressed at the completion of a document as the Tav completes the Aleph-Bet. Moreover, the name and shape of the Tav both signify a seal.[107] However, the first letter of Sheker, the Shin, represents falsehood because in the Aleph-Bet it directly neighbours the Tav. This indicates that even the slightest deviation from truth – a movement from the Tav to the letter directly next to it, the Shin - brings one into falsehood.[108]

[1] Exodus 37:12
[2] Babylonian Talmud Yoma 72b
[3] Babylonian Talmud Berachot 27b; Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Deiot 2:6 
[4] Genesis 37:4
[5] Rashi on Genesis 37:4
[6] Rabbeinu Bachyeh on Genesis 17:1; Sheloh Hakadosh, Mesechta Pesachim, Perek Torah Ohr, Matzah Ashirah Derush 39
[7] Genesis 29:15                                                                                                                                
[8] Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, known by the acronym Rashi on Genesis 29:13
[9] Ibid
[10] Borenstein, Shmuel, Shem MiShmuel Bereshit Vol. 1,Yeshivat Avnei Nezer Sochotchov,1992, pp.228-230
[11] Psalms 34:14
[12] Vilna Gaon on Proverbs 2:2
[13] Leviticus 11:3-8; Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah ,79  
[14] Midrash Rabbah Genesis 22:13, Leviticus 13:5
[15]  Heard directly from Rabbi Mattis Kantor, Author of ‘The Ten Keys’ and ‘The Jewish Timeline Encyclopedia’
[16] Mindel, Nissan, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi Vol. 2, Kehot Publication Society, 1973, pp.16-18
[17]Schneerson, Y.Y., Likutei Dibburim, Vol.5, Kehot Publication Society, pp.104-105
[18] Numbers 16:20
[19] Targum Onkelus on Numbers 16:20
[20] Deuteronomy 6:6
[21] Oratz, Ephraim, ‘And Nothing But The Truth’ Judaica Press, New York, 1990, p.59
[22] Rabbi Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl, Meor Enaim, Netzavim
[23] Rabbi Dovber of Lubavitch, Derech Chaim, Kehot Publication Society, pp.7a-7b
[24] Babylonian Talmud Sukkah 32b
[25] Zechariah 8:19
[26] Rashi on Sukkah 32b
[27] Schneur Zalman of Liadi, Tanya, Ch.13
[28] Ibid.
[29] Midrash Genesis Rabbah Sec.32
[30] Lowe, Yehuda, Netivot Olan, Netiv Haemet, Sec.2
[31] Proverbs 12:19
[32] Zohar Ki Sisa 188a
[33] In Torah numerology, the numerical values of letters and words are of main concern, yet there are many ways of calculating a word’s numerical equivalent, each pointing to a different aspect of a word. See Cordovero, Moshe, Pardes Rimonim 30:8
[34] Horowitz, Yeshayah, Shnei Luchot HaBrit, Toldot Adam, Bet Israel, Sec.11
[35] Yaarot Devash, Vol 1, Derush 13; Itzchak Isaac of Ziravitz, Otiot DeRebbi Yitzchak, Israel, 1965, p.20a
[36] Yalkut Shimoni, Bereshit, 1:1
[37] DeVidas, Eliyahu, Reshit Chochmah, Shelach 163b
[38] Bogomilsky, Moshe, Vedibarta Bam, Vol. 1, Sichos in English, Bereshit 1:1
[39] ש= 300 =3;  ק=100=1;ר = 200=2; thus: 3+1+2 = 6
[40] Jerusalem Talmud, Sanhedrin 1:1, Midrash Deuteronomy Rabbah 1:10
[41] Lowe, Yehudah, Derech Chaim 5:7
[42]  Kramer, Chaim, Crossing The Narrow Bridge, Breslov Research Institute, 1989, p.53
[43] Ibid.
[44] Twersky, Abraham, Not Just Stories, Shaar Press, 2001, p.103
[45] Exodus 1:13
[46] Gikatilia, Joseph, Shaare Orah, Gate 7
[47] Shneur Zalman of Liadi, Tanya, Shaar HaYichud Ch.1, Likutei Torah, Behar, p.82
[48] Zohar I, p.99a
[49] Albo, Rabbi Joseph, Sefer HaIkarim, Maamre 2, Perek 27
[50] Exodus 3:14
[51] =1; מ=40; ת=400; 1+40+400 = 441
[52] Rabbeinu Nissim, Deroshot Haran, Derush 3
[53] Midrash Genesis Rabbah 51:8
[54] Genesis 19:1-10
[55] Lowe, Rabbi Yehuda, Derashot HaMaharal, Derush L’Shabbat Shuva
[56] This idea casts some light on the tragic incident where Cain killed Abel. Both brothers, Cain and Abel, brought offerings to the Almighty; Cain from mediocre crop, and Abel from the choicest of his flock. G-d accepted Abel’s generous offering, but not Cain’s parsimonious one. Cain, burning with envy, murdered Abel.[56] As mentioned concerning Lot, mitzvot have the power to shield people from danger. Why then did Abel’s lavish offering not protect him from Cain's vengeance? Abel had merely imitated Cain when offering his flock to G-d; he did not independently arrive at the practice. His offering, lacking truth, was thus insufficient to protect him from death.[56] In fact, the name Abel is consistent with his character. Abel denotes vapour,[56] something that appears to have substance but in actuality does not; much like Abel imitated others but lacked the solidity of independence.     
[57] Maimonides, Shemoneh Perakim, Introduction
[58] Lowe, Rabbi Yehuda, Netivat Olam, Netiv HaTorah Sec.8
[59] Ibid. Genesis 4:3-8
[60] Schneerson, M.M, Letters of the Rebbe Vol.II, Otzar Sifrei Lubavitch, 1997, p.194
[61] Numbers 22:21-30
[62] Midrash Numbers Rabbah 20:14
[63] Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 104a
[64] Albo, Rabbi Joseph, Sefer HaIkarim, Maamre 2, Perek 27
[65] Schneerson, Y.Y., HaYom Yom, Kehot Publication Society, Sec. 27 Adar I
[66] Rashi on Exodus 2:14
[67] Oratz, Ephraim, ‘And Nothing But The Truth’ Judaica Press, New York, 1990, p.105
[68] Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, Maamare Admeu HaZaken 5565, Kehot Publication Society, p.370
[69] Lowe, Yehuda, Derech Chaim 5:7
[70] Ibid.
[71] Ibid.
[72] Borenstein, Samuel, Shem MiShmuel, Bereshit I, pp.260 - 261
[73] Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, Tanya, Likute Amarim, Ch.32
[74] Frankel, Victor, Ten Thesis concerning a Human, translated by Rabbi Dr S.D. Cowen, Monash University, Melbourne,  pp.
[75] Ibid.
[76] Ibid.
[77] Zohar III:152a
[78] Zohar I 170b, see also Sha’arei Kedusha, Part One, Gate One.
[79]  Ibid.
[80] Tikunei Zohar, Tikun 30
[81] Eiruvin 21b
[82] Zohar III:152a
[83] Tanya, Shaar HaYichud, Ch.4
[84] Midrash Genesis Rabbah 10:9
[85] Schneerson, M.M, Likutei Sichot, Vol.15, p.335 
[86] Ganz, Rabbi Dovid, Tzemach Dovid, Gross Bros. Co., pp.4-5
[87] Psalms 119:160
[88] Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech of Dinov, Bnei Yissaschar, Maamare Chodesh Tishrei, Maamre 1, Sec.10
[89] For instance, “And G-d said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light...And God said, "Let the water that is beneath the heavens gather into one place...” (Genesis 1:3 and 1:9)
[90] Tanya, Gate of Unity and faith, Ch.1 
[91] Schneerson, M.M, In the Paths of Our Fathers, Ch.5 :1
[92] Schneerson, M.M, Likutei Sichot, Vol.2, p.616;  Munk, Eliyahu, The Wisdom in the Hebrew Alphabet, Mesorah Publications, 2001, p.44
[93] Tikunei Zohar, Tikun 40
[94] Tikuei Zohar Introduction II; Sefer Hamaamarim, Basi L’Gani, Vol.1 p.145 
[95] Genesis 20:1-12
[96] Ibid. 20:12
[97] Rashi on Genesis 20:12 citing Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer, Ch.36
[98] Genesis 26:5-27
[99] Rashi on Ibid citing Midrash Tanchuma
[100] Genesis 20:11
[101] Genesis 27:5-16
[102] Babylonian Talmud, Nedarim 25a
[103] Lowe, Rabbi Yehudah, Netivot Olam, Netiv Ha’Emet, Sec. 1
[104] Ibid.
[105] Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 104a
[106]Lowe, Rabbi Yehudah, Netivot Olam, Netiv HaEmet, Sec.1
[107] Ginzburgh, Rabbi Yitzchak, The Hebrew Letters, Gal Einai, pp. 326, 330 and 332
[108]  See fn.143