We recite this aloud at Congregation Beth Shalom every Shabbat morning, right after reading the Torah. In recent years, I have leaned into this prayer with increasing urgency. It is a long-standing tradition for Jewish services to include a prayer for the nation in which we live; right now, in 21st-century America, we need to do so more than ever.
We have witnessed horrible things in the past week: a Confederate flag carried through the halls of Congress; a “Camp Auschwitz Staff” t-shirt; a truck full of Molotov cocktails at the ready; a police officer beaten to death with a fire extinguisher. As more images continue to pour out, my shock only grows.
While trying to wrap my head around what happened at the United States Capitol on January 6, I continue to return to the fundamental importance of truth. One piece of wisdom from our tradition, found in the 2nd-century CE rabbinic collection known as Pirkei Avot (1:18), invokes what you might call the “Jewish holy trinity”: Emet, Din, Shalom – truth, justice, and peace are integrally intertwined. Without truth and justice, there can be no peace.
But to put a finer point on it, we need in particular to remember the mitzvah / holy obligation from the Torah (Shemot / Exodus 23:7):
מִדְּבַר־שֶׁ֖קֶר תִּרְחָ֑ק וְנָקִ֤י וְצַדִּיק֙ אַֽל־תַּהֲרֹ֔ג כִּ֥י לֹא־אַצְדִּ֖יק רָשָֽׁע׃
Keep far from falsehood; do not bring death on those who are innocent and righteous, for I [God] will not acquit the wrongdoer.
While the context suggests not accepting the testimony of deceitful witnesses, so that innocent people will not be put to death, the text can and should also be translated as,
Do not lie, because lying will cause the death of innocent and righteous people, and God will never forgive us for that.
There is a reason why we still recall the national myth of George Washington, who could not tell a lie about chopping down the cherry tree, and we still refer to “Honest Abe” Lincoln. That is because the truth saves lives, and falsehood is murderous.
As we continue to pray for our country, remember that we the Jews in particular know the danger of falsehood. All anti-Semitism is rooted in falsehood: the medieval blood libel accusations, the 19th-century forgery of the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, the lies that led to the murder of 6 million Jews in Europe a mere fourscore years ago, the lies that killed 11 Jewish worshippers at a synagogue in our neighborhood two years ago.
We cannot tolerate lying in our own sphere of influence, and we must not tolerate lying on a national or international scale.
Rather, we must stand up for truth. We must distance ourselves from falsehood, because, as we have witnessed this week, falsehood leads to bloodshed.
So I am going to keep leaning into this prayer, until such time as we can put the lies behind us and move forward together.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 1/9/2021.)