At Beit T’Shuvah, a rehab in Los Angeles, we began work with addicts by asking simply, “What are the lies you tell yourself?” I often thought, how would I possibly know that?! Surely, we all lie, even more that we realize or admit. In The Little Drummer Girl, John LeCarre describes Kurtz, an Israeli spymaster, as someone who “wheeled and dealed and lied even in his prayers.”
My question is, can we lie to God? The Machzor, our high holiday prayer-book, says emphatically no, because “You [God] know the secrets of the world.” Which is surely to say that even if you can lie to yourself, it’s just a kind of fooling yourself, and you can’t fool God. And frankly, unless you’re a sociopath, most of us aren’t even very good at fooling others. Here, too, the Talmud teaches that our body and soul will rebel against any pale veneer of false self-presentation, and ultimately, we will all be called to account. The first question we’ll be asked in judgment is whether we dealt honestly with others. Did you?
If it is not permissible to lie, then is it permissible to hide? Not lie, per se, but remain concealed. Whether by shyness, shame, or oversight, is it alright to omit the things we’d rather not share? Yes, our tradition teaches that privacy is a prerogative, and you may hide, or at least remain safely out of light. It’s even prohibited to force someone to reveal themselves, and no less a figure that Rabbi Akiva was taken to task for calling another out. So, it’s Ok if you aren’t ever ready to share your worries; you can remain private, and that is fine. The 27th Psalm teaches that God will conceal and hide us in times of trouble. In fact, the midrash suggests even God has moments of private emotion, where God weeps in secret.
Unfortunately, here’s the rub: hiding doesn’t work. In this, I am inspired by my colleague Rabbi Gil Steinlauf, the dynamic leader of Adas Israel congregation in Washington, DC. Shortly after the High Holidays, Rabbi Steinlauf made a momentous announcement to his community. “I am writing to share with you that after twenty years of marriage,” he began, “my wife Batya and I have decided to divorce.” In itself, this is a tremendous and challenging admission for a pastor, when so much rides upon religious leaders’ “family values” that many delay or defer divorce for fear of professional consequences. Then, Rabbi Steinlauf bravely continued, “We have arrived at this heartbreaking decision because I have come to understand that I am gay.” Wow. Rabbi Steinlauf, whom I had only met briefly through a fellowship, became alive to me as never before with his courage, warmth, and authenticity. He was determined to live a true life, with newfound clarity and without hiding. Candidly, Rabbi Steinlauf’s candor is far from common. Too few follow Maimonides’ halakhah that “One’s inside should be like one’s outside.”
Admittedly, it is not easy, but it is vital. Living a life without integrity and authenticity is possible, but it does not ennoble the world around us. Although our tradition permits us to hide if not lie, it also advocates for revealing one’s spirit, self, and greatness. Says Rabbi Kook, Palestine’s first chief rabbi, “Everyone must know and understand that within them burns a candle and no one’s candle is identical with the candle of another and there is no human being without a candle. So everyone must know and understand that one is obligated to work hard to reveal the light of one’s candle in the public realm for the benefit of the many. One needs to ignite one’s candle and make of it a great torch to enlighten the whole world.”