Two Truths and a Lie

This post on If Not Now, When?, the interactive blog of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple, is the sermon shared by Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk on Rosh Hashanah morning, 2019.  We encourage you to share comments below, or to post the link to this post on social media such as Facebook or Twitter, or to share with others by email, to continue the conversations it engenders.

Let’s play a game. It is an ice-breaker. The game is called: “Two truths and a lie.” In the game, each player makes 3 statements about themselves. Two must be true and one must be false or contain a significant lie. You share the three statements in random order. Then the fun begins as the group discusses and votes on which one is a lie, before the person reveals the answer.

Typically, “Two truths and a lie” is run with a playful theme, like “times I met someone famous” or “people on whom I had a crush.” But since it’s Rosh Hashanah, I’ll start by making the theme more High Holy Day focused. Are you ready? My first statement is: To me, more important than any Rosh Hashanah prayer or ritual is the introspection we do in our soul. My second statement is:  I was once publicly accused of cheating by a classmate. My third statement is: When I talk with other people, I believe that what they are telling me is the truth.

It was probably pretty easy to discern that my first statement is true. I’ve told you many times how important it is at this season to conduct a Heshbon Ha-Nefesh, an accounting of one’s soul.  It may have been more challenging to decide that my second statement is also true. A classmate in grad school did once decide they’d seen me cheat, and they publicly called me a fraud who’d never ever succeed in my career. I’ll tell you more about that later. This leaves me with a sad revelation for Rosh Hashanah morning: When I encounter people, I do NOT generally believe they are being honest and telling me the truth.  Oy. Did I just say that? Did I admit that I greet much of what people say with distrust? Or am I lying now? It’s hard to tell.

Maybe it’s the experiences I’ve had in public leadership. Maybe it’s the barrage of daily news stories. Or maybe I’ve been influenced by the new book I’ve been reading called Talking To Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell.  The book theorizes that one of our greatest assets and liabilities is that we “default to truth,” assuming honesty in others. Surely, there is a plus side to believing people are telling us the truth. Without it, how could kids learn from teachers? How could we deposit our paychecks? Would we pull over when police car lights flash at us?

Yet defaulting to the idea that others are being honest with us has a steep downside and Gladwell applies this to the most polarizing stories in modern life, such as the football coach at Penn State who got away with years of child abuse because people defaulted to the idea that there must be a benign explanation for what they’d seen. This is just one of the stories Gladwell retells through the lens of “defaulting” to truth. Two of the narratives are particularly haunting for Jews. The first is the disastrous judgment made by Neville Chamberlain about a young German leader named Adolf Hitler. The second is the SEC investigators exploring the work of a prominent investor about 12-13 years ago. The man had been praised on Wall Street for his ability to beat the market repeatedly for his clients, which included many prominent individuals but also several Jewish philanthropies, federations and educational programs.

I am speaking, of course, of Bernie Madoff. Apparently, people in the SEC were suspicious of how Madoff had such solid financial returns trading securities even as markets fluctuated. They were suspicious but not “willing to believe that [Madoff] was an out-and-out liar.” So an investigator went to see him, believing he could sniff out the truth. In that encounter, Madoff said unabashedly that he was someone who “could see around corners.” He said he just had a “gut feel for when to get out of the market before a downswing, and back in before an upswing.” The investigator had doubts. So did his boss. “But not enough doubts.” They defaulted to truth, and so Madoff’s Ponzi scheme, the largest in history, continued. (Malcolm Gladwell, Talking To Strangers, (New York: Little Brown and Company, 2019), p. 91.

Can you claim you would’ve caught Madoff lying? Maybe you are right! But don’t you, somewhere in your heart, want to believe him? Don’t you want to believe there are certain people who can see around corners and whose gut you have to trust?

There are days, even High Holy Days such as these, when I long to believe in such people? I yearn to be like them. But Jewish tradition reminds me such a goal is illusory. We are all flawed and human beings. As a rabbi, I help people marry and bury and live with flawed human beings. And believe me, it gets dicey when the person you truly mistrust sits across the table from you at Thanksgiving. It’s one thing to fear a Bernie Madoff type out there, someone you hire but who turns out to lie and scheme and steal from money you’ve invested. But when the swindler is your friend, the one manipulating your sibling, the one lying your child, it wrecks your sense of stature in the world. Even our textual sources reveal the lies and dishonesty between among our ancestors:

In Genesis 4:9, God turns to Cain and asks “where is your brother?” Cain replies with an outright lie: “I do not know,” he says. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Chapters later in Genesis 27:5-17, we listen to Rebecca tutor Jacob on how to deceive Isaac and steal Esau’s birthright. Now what kind of mother trains her son to lie and steal? And why does Isaac, who seems to be aware of the lie being perpetrated on him, knowingly allow Jacob’s treachery to go forward?

It doesn’t get any better in the book of Exodus 2:11-15 when Moses encounters an Egyptian beating a Hebrew. My religious school teachers always told me that Moses intervenes to save his Hebrew kinsman from oppression. But my teachers were lying! Yes, Moses intervenes. But before he does, he looks both ways to see if anyone is watching. He first intends to kill the Egyptian beating the Hebrew then he follows through on his intent, buries him, and runs away.

This is Moses I’m talking about! I’m not questioning whether Torah should reveal his intention to strike the man down. It is actually something I love about Judaism that our ancestors are depicted without hiding their acts of rage, provocation, and betrayal. This way, we can openly struggle with their examples of dishonorable conduct. But all these Biblical examples do underscore that “defaulting to truth” has for centuries been a choice we make at our own risk.

The story is told of a judge in NYC conducting arraignment hearings. The defendants before him are all people arrested in the past 24 hours on suspicion of a crime. They’d just spent a sleepless night in a holding cell and were now in a courtroom in handcuffs. The defendant would stand directly in front of the judge, with his lawyer on one side and the district attorney on the other. The two lawyers would talk. The judge would listen. Then the judge would decide if the defendant would need to post bail, and if so, how much bail should be. The judge would ask “does this perfect stranger deserve his freedom?” and the criminal justice assumes…such decisions are better made when the judge and the judged meet each other first. (Talking To Strangers, Malcolm Gladwell, p. 36-37.)

In Gladwell’s book, he explains how an economist, three computer scientists, and an academic expert on bail reform gathered records of more than 550,000 defendants in NYC arraignment hearings. Of those, they found that arraignment judges released just over 400,000. The group then built an artificial intelligence system, fed it the same information prosecutors gave judges, factors such as a defendant’s age or criminal record, and the computer reviewed the same cases. In the contest between human judges and the computer, who do you think won? Whose list committed fewer crimes while out on bail? The results weren’t even close. The people on the computer list were 25 percent less likely to commit a crime while awaiting trial! (Talking To Strangers, Malcolm Gladwell, p. 39-40.)

You don’t seem surprised. For in addition to times when our justice system gets it right, stories every day tell us how often it fails miserably. But still it seems preposterous to have accused defendants stand before a computerized judge.

Why? Because ultimately we are guided by a belief in a human striving to get it right. We know computers can beat our efforts. But we believe in what humanity can achieve. So we have built a system that trusts the kishkes, the living instincts of human prosecutors, judges, and juries. The practice of justice in our Jewish tradition lays the foundation for the way our American system of jurisprudence places human beings, however flawed our judgment, as the ones to discriminate between facts and fiction!

This is true in our personal lives as well, where we trust our gut about the integrity of the person next to whom we sleep or the business partners who’ve promised to stick by us. Many times during my career, it was during the High Holy Days that a congregant sought my counsel as they questioned whether they’d been living a lie in their work or their marriage. It can be jarring to hear people question their belief in the closest people in their lives. But I am heartened every time I witness the accountability Jews feel to the rituals we enact during this season. I am moved to see these holidays used as catalysts to a richer, more honest life!

How does this work? Our sages taught us to return to the metaphor of a courtroom. We enter the court as though defendants preparing to testify. Only this time we appear in the court of a dayan ha-emet, a decisor of truth, who is “judge and arbiter, counsel and witness…who musters and numbers and considers every soul, setting the bounds of every creature’s life.” (Gates of Repentance, NY: CCAR Press, 1978, p. 312.)  Some hear in these words a certainty of belief. I do not. I hear in them the cry of poets desperately hoping a divine judge might exist who can show us how to sort out evident truths from the lies we hide from view.

Ten days from now on Yom Kippur we will symbolically confess before the judge: “Al Chet Shechatanu…” We have been malicious and narrow-minded. We’ve lied and transgressed. We have tolerated in ourselves faults we condemn in others.” I beg of you not to defend yourself from such confessions. We all have committed these sins. Don’t evade. Don’t compromise. Don’t speak in a half-hearted fashion. It matters what you say and how you say it.

I encourage you: before each nightfall of the ten days of repentance, prepare your testimony. Ask yourself in your heart: Are you a person who defaults to truth, or do you greet most of what of what you hear people say with suspicion? Don’t judge your answer. You are who you are, and you will not have a perfect record of judgment and being judged. The mistakes we all make often lead to grudges, vendettas and long-held bad feelings. In my experience, and in keeping with Jewish tradition, it is best to scrutinize the grudges we hold and ask ourselves what they yield that is more fruitful than forgiveness and understanding of oneself and others.

This leads me to a story. Almost 25 years ago, a classmate thought they saw me cheating. We never spoke about it directly. So I don’t know what made them think I cheated. But I do remember a public note they left telling me I was a fraud who’d never succeed at becoming a rabbi. I recall the sting of their accusation. I remember the indignation in my heart and the tears in my eyes. For a long time, I turned my rage back on them, saying aloud  “Don’t call me a cheater” in the same breath as I called them a liar. It’s been more than two decades since I’ve even seen that person. In the intervening years, with all I have learned, I think I understand: she may just be someone like me who doesn’t default to truth. She isn’t bad or good. She just didn’t think well of me, and she got it wrong. She got it wrong. We all do. She’s a human being, as flawed as any of us, someone who used her own kishkes to discern lies from truth, and it is on me to make peace with what she said. Today, when I look back on that painful moment, and I look forward to what I hope is a long life ahead,  I see no reason not to just let it go.

As I told you: more important to me than any Rosh Hashanah prayer is the reflection we do in our souls. For it allows us to recognize the humanity of those who judge us. It enables us to let go of past hurts, grudges, and doubts.

As 5780 begins, God knows, none of us will have a perfect record in discerning who is lying from telling the truth. And Gladwell’s new book demonstrates the stakes of the judgments we make about the integrity of others. For as playful as I made it seem, “two truths and a lie” is no game. It is a burden we all bear for living in relationship with one another.

Some people are real crooks like Madoff. Others are run-of-the-mill liars and cheats. But many people are just doing the best they can, striving and failing and striving again, to live with a measure of integrity, and call it as they see it. We are all just trying to inscribe ourselves into a book of life and truth. May we succeed in this endeavor.