The Truth In A World Of Spin (Edited Transcript)
One of the most difficult aspects of interacting with people is how to do so in a truthful way. In a world where marketing, advertising and spin-doctoring have become an art form, where people keep presenting themselves in different ways, it has become increasingly difficult to find the truth. One often finds false flattery, or chanifa, when interacting with others, which the Talmud regards as a serious moral sin.
In Tractate Sota, page 42a it says there are four categories of people whom the Shechina, the Divine Presence, does not receive in the World to Come: scoffers, those who commit the sin of false flattery, those who lie and those who speak lashon hara, evil slander. (Obviously we are all human and occasionally might come to transgress one of these, but the Gemara is talking about people for whom these behaviours are habitual.) Scoffers, liars and slanderers are understood. What exactly is false flattery?
The sin of false flattery
In this week’s parsha, Mas’ei, there is a verse which talks about flattery, though in a different context. Understanding what false flattery means in that context will give us an understanding the concept in general and how it applies to our interaction with people. In chapter 35, verse 33 and 34 talk about the crime of murder. It says that when a person is found guilty of murder, the Sanhendrin, the Jewish Supreme Court, have to ensure that the murderer is punished; as we know, the Torah imposes the death penalty for the crime of murder. Interestingly, the verse states velo tachanifu et ha’aretz, “Do not ‘flatter’ the land that you are in, because the blood will flatter the land; and the land will not be atoned for the blood that is spilled in it except through the blood of the one who spills it. Do not defile the land in which you dwell, in the midst of which I dwell; because I the Lord dwell amidst the children of Israel.”
The commentators discuss what this term tachanifu, “flattering the land,” means in this context. Rav Saadya Gaon, one of the commentators from the period of the Geonim from over 1,000 years ago, translates chanifa not as flattery but as defiling the land; we are commanded not to defile it. The Ibn Ezra, one of the classic commentators from the Middle Ages, says chanifa means la’asot ra baseter, doing evil in private. Giving off one impression and then doing something different constitutes false flattery.
The Ramban, Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, also from the Middle Ages, explains that “do not flatter the land” means do not cause the land to become a hypocrite. The book of Devarim, chapter 28, enumerates the curses which Hashem sets out if the laws of the Torah are transgressed. One of the punishments for people who commit sins and do not carry out justice is that the land will not produce what it promises. The verses state, “You will plant vineyards and you will work the vineyards but the wine you won’t drink; you will plant olives, but the olive oil will not be produced. . . . You will plant the trees but the fruits and the produce of the land will not be reaped.”
The word tachanifu, from the word chanifa refers to when you promise something but then don’t do what you said you would, when there is a discrepancy between what you say and reality. The Ramban reads the verse as, “Do not commit the sin of murder or allow the sin of murder to be committed in the land such that it will result in Hashem’s punishment which will turn the land into a hypocrite, where the land will be falsely flattering, promising to deliver the fruits but actually delivering nothing. If you allow the crime of murder to be perpetrated in the Land of Israel, says the Ramban, this will lead to the destruction.
We are now in the middle of the Three Weeks of mourning, beginning with the fast of the 17th of Tamuz and concluding with the fast of Tisha B’av, the 9th of Av. An integral part of Jewish philosophy is the concept of reward and punishment as it pertains to individuals and to the nation as a whole. At this time we need to mourn the destruction of the Temples and the subsequent exiles and to reflect on what caused this destruction. The Talmud teaches that one of the major sins and causes of the destruction of the First Temple period was murder. Murder, sexual immorality and idolatry are the three cardinal sins that were committed at the time of the destruction of the First Temple.
And so the way the Rambam reads this verse, if you allow the crime of murder to be perpetrated in the land of Israel, this will lead to destruction, where the land will become a hypocrite.
Rav Moshe Feinstein, one of the great rabbinic authorities of the 20th century, offers another unique explanation on what it means to “flatter the land.” As we know, the Ten Commandments say lo tirtzach, “do not murder.” Pretty much all civilizations agree that it is wrong to take human life. If so, what is so special about the commandment not to murder? Why did it even have to be included in the Torah? Would we not know it otherwise?
Firstly, on this point, evidently it is not so simple; there have been many civilizations throughout history which had no problem with committing murder. There were times in human civilization where, for example, it was permitted for parents to murder their children because children were viewed as their property. So the first thing to note is that it is not so readily understood that murder is and always has been wrong. But secondly, Rav Feinstein explains, you can outlaw murder for one of two reasons: a utilitarian reason, where it is not good for society because you can’t sustain a society where people are murdering each other; or the Torah approach which says murder is wrong because it is intrinsically morally wrong to destroy human life. Rav Feinstein says that when the laws against murder are based on utilitarian reasons, people will use those very reasons to justify murder. For example, certain people in modern Western society will say that abortion is not murder, or that euthanasia is permissible and even advisable and not considered murder. Many people in Western society will say it is permissible to murder a foetus or someone who is old and suffering, because they feel that human needs are not being fulfilled or that society’s needs are not being fulfilled by that person staying alive. They’ll come up with all kinds of elaborate justifications. Without getting into the halachic complexities of the difference between withholding treatment from a dying patient or actively murdering, our starting point has to be that it is wrong to murder, and that human life is sacred, full-stop. It does not matter how old or how ill the person is; this is the law from Hashem.
In Torah law, from the perspective of Hashem, human life is sacred. Saving a life is a great mitzvah, and one can and should set aside virtually all the laws of the Torah in order to save a life, what we call pikuach nefesh. Even if it is just to extend life we are allowed – and in fact are required – to desecrate Shabbos, for example, even just to give a person another hour, another minute or another second of life, because we view life as precious and having intrinsic value.
Rav Feinstein explains that the “land” symbolizes civilization, a society where people say murder is okay if it is for the sake of society at large. He says, “do not flatter the land” means do not allow murder to take place, even on the justification that it is going to help the land – i.e., civilization. Murder is absolutely wrong, in and of itself, because Hashem said so. It has nothing to do with any kind of utilitarian justifications, because once we start with utilitarian justifications it’s a slippery slope to allowing all kinds of sins and atrocities.
Being honest about what is right and what is wrong
There is another interpretation of this verse, found in the Chizkuni, also from the Middle Ages. The Chizkuni interprets this verse as “do not flatter the murderers who dwell in the land.” In the broader context, we must not flatter a person who does evil. Chanifa is not just talking about false flattery in general, but about flattering evil specifically by paying tribute and honour to people who do wrong. People sometimes overlook the evil being done in the world and in so doing condone the evil taking place.
Quoting from the Sifri, a Talmudic commentary on the Chumash, the Ramban says that this verse is a source for the concept of chanifa, of false flattery of evil and wrong-doing. An example of false flattery is brought in the Talmud quoted earlier from Tractate Sota, on page 41b. The Gemara discusses what the Mishnah says about King Agripas and Hak’hel, the mitzvah where every seven years the Jewish People gathered in the Temple and the king read the book of Deuteronomy to the entire nation. Agripas was actually disqualified to be the king of the people because of his lineage, not being a natural-born Jewish citizen, but through various circumstances became king anyhow. During Hak’hel, when Agripas came to the verse that said “you shall not appoint a stranger over you,” the Talmud says tears rolled down Agripas’ cheeks because he felt so embarrassed to be reading the verse which disqualified him from being king. The Talmud continues that the sages of the time said, achinu ata, achinu ata, don’t worry, “you are our brother,” i.e. it is okay for you to be king. The Gemara says that at that moment when the sages flattered him falsely and said it is okay for him to be king, a decree of destruction was issued by Hashem.
Being careful not to validate something which is wrong
Using the above example from the Talmud, Rav Moshe Feinstein clarifies in one of his halachic responsa that Chanifa is anything you say and do which implies that a wrong-doing, a sin, is actually okay. Whatever we say or do in interacting with other people, we must never create the impression, even if it is just implied, that what they are doing is okay if in fact it is wrong. Whatever we do, we must have the honesty and integrity not to misrepresent the Torah in any way, and not to misrepresent our values and our principles just to gain favour with other people. This does not mean we must deliberately start a fight; the Gemara discusses the obligation to rebuke and how this obligation is not incumbent upon us if the rebuke is not going to be effective. However, all agree that false flattery in condoning wrong-doing is wrong.
Hashem’s absolute value system
This is an important lesson for modern society in general: Hashem teaches us that there are absolutes in the world in terms of what is right and what is wrong; not everything is acceptable. We need a framework of truth without which we have nothing. G-d’s absolute truth is the framework, the foundation to repentance and being a decent person.
This is why one of the things the Rambam, Maimonides, lists as impediments to repentance is a person who cannot handle constructive criticism. If we cannot deal with constructive criticism, says the Rambam, we will never improve in life because we have no framework; we’re too attached to ourselves to see the truth. He also says a person who does not listen to the teachings of the rabbis and does not respect Torah knowledge and Torah leadership cannot grow, because Hashem’s framework of truth is given to us through the teachings of our sage and the rabbis who guide us.
Without clarity of what is true and what is false, society has no hope. As human beings we’re fallible and we make mistakes, but at the very least we need to know what is right and what is wrong. “Do not flatter the land” is a prohibition against creating an atmosphere where the concept of right and wrong totally disappears and we don’t even know in which direction we are headed. Even if it is uncomfortable, we must be honest and defend the truth. Only with a framework of honesty and integrity about what is right and what is wrong is there hope for the future.