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Vayeira 5769-2008

‘Shalom Bayit’, Little White Lies”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In parashat Vayeira, Abraham receives the stunning news from the three “guests” whom he has welcomed into his home, that he, at age 100, and his wife Sarah, at age 90, would be blessed with a child in the coming year.

Although Abraham is already the father of Hagar’s son, Ishmael, Abraham and Sarah desperately want a child of their own. The news of their child’s impending birth not only renders Abraham and Sarah incredulous, but also a bit disoriented. Consequently, when Sarah, from behind the tent, overhears the fateful conversation that the angels are having with her husband, she laughs inwardly saying (Genesis 18:12), “Ah’cha’ray v’loh’tee, ha’yeh’tah lee ed’nah, va’doh’nee zah’kayn,” After I have withered shall I be fertile again and my husband is old!

G-d confronts Abraham about Sarah’s skeptical laughter, selectively recalling to Abraham Sarah’s words (Genesis 18:13): “Ha’ahf um’nahm ay’layd vah’ah’nee zah’kahn’tee?” Is it true that I shall bear a child even though I am so old? G-d then declares (Genesis 18:14): Is there anything beyond G-d’s ability? At the appointed time, I shall return to you at this time next year, and Sarah will have a son.

News of the birth of a “miracle child” can throw anyone off kilter. Nevertheless, our rabbis hold the patriarchs to a very high standard, seeking to reconcile the discrepancies that appear in the conversation.

The Netziv seeks to know how G-d could change the words that Sarah spoke. After all, Sarah said: “My husband is old,” but when G-d asks Abraham why Sarah laughed, G-d leaves out Sarah’s description of Abraham, and substitutes the self-negating phrase, “Vah’ah’nee zah’kahn’tee,” and I [Sarah] am old. Unable to accept that a word of untruth was uttered by the Al-mighty, the Netziv explains that when Sarah laughed internally, she was really expressing the feeling that, despite having been old and withered, her youth had now been miraculously restored. Her concern, however, was that since her husband was old it would still be impossible for her to conceive. Her statement was not at all intended to denigrate Abraham, consequently G-d omitted it when speaking to Abraham.

Rashi, citing the Midrash in Bamidbar Rabbah, explains that the text was changed “for the sake of peace” (domestic tranquility), so that Abraham would not be angry with Sarah for calling him old.

The Torah Temimah (authored by Rabbi Baruch HaLevi Epstein), elaborating on Rashi, cites the complete Talmudic statement from Yevamot 65b, attributed to the School of Rabbi Yishmael, declaiming that great is the cause of peace, seeing that for its sake even the Holy One, Blessed be He, modified a statement; for it is written, “My lord [husband] is old,” while afterward it is written, “and I am old.”

While many tend to see the Torah as very much a document of stark black and white, it is not at all so. Surely, there are absolutes in the Torah. Those absolutes are exactly what constitute the revolutionary nature of the Torah. The Torah does not equivocate when it comes to murder, adultery, or idol worship. Those actions are evil and cannot be rationalized or justified. And yet, even those absolutes are not monolithic. So, for instance, those who commit murder, adultery or worship idols under duress are not punished even though such individuals are generally expected to give up their own lives rather than transgress. Similarly, the Torah says clearly, “Lo tir’tzach,” thou shalt not murder. It does not say, thou shalt not kill. Killing in self defense is permissible and is not akin to murder in any way, shape or form. Clearly, even “killing” is hardly black and white.

Lying is forbidden by the Torah. Two prominent verses prohibiting lying are (Exodus 23:7) “Lo t’shahk’roo eesh bah’ah’mee’toh,” do not lie one to another, and (Leviticus 19:1) “Mid’var sheker tir’chak,” keep far from a false word. Lying is bad, and is generally strictly forbidden. The rabbis, however, do not imply that G-d lied when He spoke to Abraham about Sarah’s reaction. They suggest rather that for the sake of peace between husband and wife, scripture, that is, G-d, changed the uncomplimentary reference from her husband [that he was old] to herself [that she was old]. This change is entirely justified, especially since nothing positive would have been achieved had the Al-mighty said that Sarah had spoken in a disrespectful manner about her husband. To the contrary, it would have engendered unnecessary strife. Nothing would have been gained, and despite the change, the point about Sarah’s skepticism was effectively made.

In a related case that occurs at the end of the book of Genesis, we learn that when Jacob dies, Joseph’s brothers fear that Joseph will avenge them for having sold him. They therefore dispatch emissaries to Joseph saying (Genesis 50:16), “Ah’vee’cha tzee’vah lif’nay moh’toh lay’mor,” Your father [Jacob] gave orders before his death saying, “Thus shall you say to Joseph: ‘Oh please, kindly forgive the spiteful deed of your brothers and their sin for having done you evil.'”

There is no record of Jacob ever making such a statement, but, once again, our sages maintain that for the sake of peace the brothers altered the truth. In both cases, there was no harm done by the change. Only peace and harmony were fostered and promoted. Had there been harm done by the change, it would have certainly been forbidden.

Shalom Bayit,” domestic tranquility, is a vital and important ingredient, not only for families, but for humankind in general. There can be no hope of ever creating a peaceful society or a peaceful world if there is no domestic Shalom Bayit. For the sake of the greater good we are permitted, indeed encouraged, to make small changes to truth that do not result in any undue harm or evil.

Promoting peace is certainly a noble calling, but it may only be done if it does not undermine the fabric of truth and honesty. It is a very fine line to walk, but that is what our Torah expects. And to my mind, it is right on the money!

May you be blessed.