D’var Torah: Rabb Carl Perkins (Yitro)

How important is it to be honest?

It’s VERY important.  It’s so important that not one but TWO out of the Ten Commandments, contained in this week’s parashah, speak explicitly about the importance of honesty.

The third commandment is: Don’t take God’s name in vain. We shouldn’t say, “I swear to God that X is true” — if X isn’t true. When we swear that something is true and it turns out to be false, people learn not to trust us. Let’s say that we boast that we’ve behaved badly. Then, when we’re asked about it, we deny that we ever behaved that way.  We must be lying, right?  Another example:  we shouldn’t ever make a promise that we have no intention of fulfilling.   If we do, others may rely on it, and come to expect its fulfillment, and be disappointed when that doesn’t happen. And they’ll be disappointed in us.

Then there is commandment number nine:  Don’t bear false witness against your neighbor.  This is a terrible thing.  As the Book of Proverbs puts it, God hates “a lying tongue … and a false witness who breathes out lies.” (Proverbs 6:16-19) Again, in addition to harming others, this places our own integrity in jeopardy.

In both cases, one thing is certain: lying can hurt others, and it can hurt us, too.  If we lie, people will come to doubt our word.  They’ll never know whether we’re telling the truth or lying.  Every time we speak, they’ll wonder whether we’re lying.

We can learn the importance of telling the truth from a lovely midrash on a text that appears later in the book of Exodus.  When Moses is told to create the ark of the covenant, he is told to coat it with gold, inside and out.  That puzzles the rabbinic commentators: They can understand why it should be coated on the outside.  After all, people will see the outside. The ark will look special if it’s coated with gold on the outside.  But why bother to coat the inside with gold? No one looks inside! No one will know the difference!

The answer is simple: When the ark is coated inside and out, it serves as a symbol of the kind of people we should strive to be: people of integrity, people who are honest, whose word matches their deed.  In other words, people whose insides match their outsides. (Yoma 72b on Exodus 25:11)

Let’s strive to fulfill these two, very important commandments. Let’s strive to be real, sincere, and honest, and let’s strive to tell the truth.  Let’s try our best to be people about whom others will say, “Their insides match their outsides.”

Shabbat shalom!

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