October 31, 2020 |

Speaking Truth to Power

Among the legends of the Jews are stories about the Golem, an 'unfinished', or artificial man. By Kabbalistic means, this Frankenstein could be temporarily animated to do one's bidding. Some of the Talmudic sages were reputed to have had this ability. Apocryphal stories claim that the great Maharal, Rabbi Yehuda Loewe, had a golem in the 17th century that saved the Jews of Prague from blood libels. Prague has even embraced this past; you can take pictures on street corners with a "Golem', the Czech version of posing with Mickey Mouse. When I was a kid, I even read a comic book about a child and his oversized 'friend' called "Mendy and the Golem." I don't know if any of the golems were real, but I have always been deeply intrigued by the idea.

Tradition has it that the Golem was brought to life by virtue of a single Hebrew word written on the Golem's forehead, or on a piece of parchment placed in its mouth. The word of power was simple, commonly used but uncommonly achieved, often invoked, but rarely practiced, frequently sought, but seldom found. The word was "emet", the Hebrew word for truth. To deactivate the golem, one erased the first aleph of the word emet, leaving behind "met", which means "the dead one." When truth is gone, says the Golem, so is life. A world of falsehood is not worth living in. Even a goilem, Yiddish for an idiot, needs to have truth to survive.

The goal of study - and of life -- should be to find the truth, the truth(s) by which we live our lives. William James wrote: "A great many men think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices." Serious inquiry is not meant to confirm what we already know or to accept that which is most comfortable for us to accept. Meir Kahane, however you feel about him, always used to say that his mandate was to ask uncomfortable questions to comfortable Jews. Isn't this a critical piece of being an educator? But it is not easy to excavate and embrace the truth. Like a pearl in the heart of a clam, the longer the irritation, the more beautiful the end product. The truth -- emet -- is not a one-shot deal, an easy download, an iphone app. It is a life-long pursuit, a hard road to travel, a soul-baring discipline.

As Jews, we turn first for truth to our Torah, "for it is our life and the length of our days." On Simchat Torah, as we end and begin the Torah again, we sing the joyous refrain "moshe emet v'torato emet", "Moses is true and his Torah is true." If the Torah were not the source of Jewish truth, where else could we turn? If the Torah had ever been removed from the Jewish people, we would long ago have been a lifeless Golem, slumbering counterparts of Ozymandias and the mummified Egyptian monarchs.

As we begin our cycle of Torah study again from the beginning, we need to humble ourselves and become truth-seekers. Our pursuit of Torah knowledge cannot be merely academic or simply tendentious. We are not collecting facts nor reviewing catechism. We ought to be seeking emet, truth. We ought to be having a living, breathing and tumultuous encounter with a book that is the most ancient fount of wisdom known to man. And, though it boggles the mind, you can get it at any Barnes and Nobles without going on a remote archaeological dig or to a museum.

In Judaism, the pursuit of the truth is also the pursuit of God and the acquisition of one brings you into the presence of the other. This is, I believe, what our tradition means by saying that the "seal" of God is truth. (Sanhedrin 64)

In Ethics of the Fathers (Pirkei Avot 5:7), we are told: "There are seven traits of a golem and seven of a wise man." These are seven principles of highly effective Jews! As intriguing as the golem may be, it is the task of a human being NOT to be a golem, to seek wisdom that results in being a mature human being, not an unfinished block of wood. The final principle, no surprise, is to be "modeh al ha-emet", to admit the truth. The wise seek the truth, even when it contradicts their most deeply-held prejudices, even when they have to admit they were wrong.

Pirkei Avot (1:18) comments: "There are three things on which the world stands: justice, truth and peace." While we will have to deal with justice and peace at another time, is it any surprise that the world cannot stand without truth as one of its pillars? The need for truth, in fact, is actually encoded into the heart of the very beginning of the Torah.

When we open to the very first words of the Torah and read "Bereisheet bara Elohim", "In [the] Beginning, Elohim created the Heavens and the Earth", we also find truth. The last letter of the word "created" is an aleph, the last letter of "Elohim" is a mem and the last letter of "In [the] beginning" is a "tav." Put the three Hebrew letters together and you have aleph-mem-tav, the truth, emet! Truth is the first hidden message of the Torah. We find the exact same pattern in the LAST three words of the creation account. The last three words of Gen. 2:3 (which is, btw, the Friday night kiddush) are "bara Elohim la'asot" "[which] Elohim created to function", and the end letters of these three words also spell emet[1].

This is either cute or amazing, coincidence or divine plan. I don't know. But, independently of this wordplay, I want to be a truth-seeker and I am energized and affirmed that as the Torah introduces itself and creation, it, too, has made truth its beginning and ending. This is, in fact, the essence of the truth. The Midrash(B'reisheet Rabba 81:2)explains that aleph is the first of all the Hebrew letters, mem is the exact middle of the alphabet and tav is its end. This means that like God, truth should go from beginning to end, that it should pervade everything that we do. It also recalls another feature of truth, which is that it is balanced, stable and secure. Since it has one letter in the beginning, one in the middle and one in the end, it can endure against all attack. However, the word for falsehood - sheker -- is made up of shin, kuf and resh, 3 out of the last 4 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. In the words of the Jewish (and Israeli) colloquialism: "sheker, ein bo raglayim", "falsehood has no legs." Since it is imbalanced and clustered at the end, it is easily blown over.[2] May we succeed in seeking truth in the Torah and in our lives, may the truths we find help us achieve our goals and balance and may the Torah we learn bring us closer to God, to the Jewish people and to ourselves. Shabbat shalom!

Note: in the hard copy of the dose, I included the actual Hebrew letters so their shape could be seen. If you want me to send them to you, send me an email. I couldn't get them to show up in this email program.

[1] We could go further and note that, in the beginning of creation, the letters of truth are not in order, but at the end they are in order. Thus, the act of creation goes from chaos to order. Truth becomes coherent. (more on this another time.)

[2] The Talmud (Shabbat 104a) gives two other interpretations. It says that falsehood is clustered together because it is very prevalent or, possibly, because liars flock together. It also suggests that the bottoms of the three letters of sheker are all pointed and narrow and thus not stable, whereas the three letters of emet all have flat bottoms or two legs and are hence stable.


Rabbi Avi Heller

Joined: July 27, 2007

Originally from Denver CO, Rav Avi received a BA from BU and Rabbinic ordination and an MA in Bible from YU. Before joining MJE, he was Director of Jewish Education at BU Hillel, co-directed the BU Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus and was an Associate University Chaplain. He has been the...

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