WHY DID GOD LIE?
“Then the Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, saying, ‘Shall I in truth bear a child, old as I am?’” (Genesis 18:13)
Today as I was driving, listening to the Broadway channel on Sirius Radio, the old Disney song came on, “When you wish upon a star.” Memories came rushing back. The song is from the movie Pinocchio, the first movie I took my son Natan to see when he was young. I listened to the song as I was driving to the airport to pick him up.
You remember Pinocchio, the classic story of a puppet who is transformed into a little boy. But the little boy has a bad habit of lying. And whenever he lies, his nose grows bigger. Children who see the movie are taught at a very young age, never tell a lie. And these children also learn legends of George Washington, who admitted chopping down the cherry tree. He famously said, he will never tell a lie.
The great philosopher Immanuel Kant invented the categorical imperative, certain actions that are wrong under any and all circumstances. To Kant, it is always wrong to lie. We want to live in a world where there is a universal law, that truth will abound and lying is wrong. Even the Ten Commandments teaches it. “You shall not bear false witness.” All of these sources point to the fact that it is wrong to tell a lie.
With that in mind, it is surprising that at the beginning of this week’s portion, God tells a lie. God appears before Sarah and promises her a son in her old age. She laughs. “How can I have a son, my husband is too old.” Eventually the son will be born to her at the age of 90, and she will call him Isaac (Yitzhak), from the Hebrew root “to laugh.” God then reports the conversation to Abraham. But he changes the words. God says that Sarah laughed because she said she is too old. The initial conversation has Sarah laughing that her husband is too old. As God tells the story, she laughed saying she is too old. God seems to tell a lie.
This entire conversation was surprising to the Rabbis. How could God lie? The answer they give is that God changed the story for the sake of Shalom Bayit “peace in the home.” God changed the story for the sake of peace between a husband and wife. From this, we learn a fundamental value, that Shalom Bayit is more important even than truth. We must do what is necessary to create peace between husband and wife, between parents and children, between brothers and sisters, and all other family members.
Tradition said that Moses’ brother Aaron was a man who “loved peace and pursued peace.” If there was strife between family members, he would go to each one individually and say that the other feels bad and wants to apologize. He worked at bringing family members together to end the argument, even if it meant exaggerating the truth.
Shalom Bayit is an important Jewish value. Unfortunately, it is misused by some rabbis. They will try to convince someone being abused, particularly a wife, to stay in an abusive marriage. Abuse is never acceptable. And nobody should ever accept abuse for the sake of Shalom Bayit. One should feel free to escape from an abusive marriage or destructive relationships. Perhaps God told a lie to strengthen a marriage. But sometimes marriages are not worth saving. They are a threat to human dignity.
All of these teach that there is a hierarchy of values in Judaism. Truth is an important value. Peace in the home is a more important value. And human dignity is the highest value of all. This is a lesson we can learn from this portion which speaks of the relationship between our patriarch and matriarch, Abraham and Sarah.