Moses saw Elazar and Ithamar, Aaron’s two sons, offer a sacrifice. He became angry because he thought they had acted improperly. However, they were correct in their actions. Aaron intervened and humbly asked a question to clarify the matter. Moses then realized that he himself had made a mistake.
And Moses heard (the point that Aaron was making with his question) and he approved. (Leviticus 10:20).
The Midrash adds, “Moses said, ‘You are right. I forgot what I had heard from G-d.’ ” Moses was confronted with a dilemma. He was the mouthpiece of G-d’s word; there was no way to verify his instructions. If he were to admit that he had forgotten and had therefore erred in conveying G-d’s word, how would that impact on the authenticity of the entire Torah? People might say, “If Moses erred in one thing, perhaps he had erred in other matters as well.” Admitting that he had erred in this one instruction would place the validity of the entire Torah in jeopardy. Was this not adequate reason for Moses to stand his ground and say, “Do as I said; that is G-d’s wish?” If he would have (falsely) stood his ground, could we have faulted him? (His motive would have been pure.)
That was not an option because Moses understood that truth can never be compromised. He was obligated to speak the truth. The consequences were not his responsibility; adherence to the truth was. The integrity of Torah for future generations was G-d’s responsibility, not his.
Rav Aharon Kotler (1891-1962) was one of the most prominent Rabbinical scholars in Europe before WWII and came to America in 1941 as a refugee. Instead of secluding himself and mourning over his personal losses due to the war, he immersed himself with rescuing Jews from the Nazis and helping to build educational institutions in America and Israel. He was once approached by a Rabbi who had been invited to address the Jewish students at Princeton. The Rabbi had anticipated that a certain controversial topic might be asked in the Q & A and asked Rabbi Kotler if he could alter the truth a bit because he thought that the true answer might be interpreted as being too harsh by some of the students. Rabbi Kotler answered, “we don’t build by destroying!” One cannot expect to build Judaism by transmitting it without integrity. Although the Rabbi’s intentions appeared (to him) to be noble (i.e. he did not want to distance students from their Jewish heritage), he was mistaken. Being disingenuous will not uphold the Torah and Judaism, it will lead to its destruction.
The Torah discusses a variety of topics that are at odds with the value system of today’s Western world. What foods to eat, whom to marry, and the afterlife are just a few of the issues that appear controversial to the contemporary mind. Some Jews believe the Torah needs to be changed to fit into modern sensibility. One might disagree with their approach but there’s some honesty to it because at least they acknowledge what is written in the Torah and how it has been observed for thousands of years; they simply don’t want to live that lifestyle. However, there are others who, when approaching an unpleasant topic, claim that the Torah doesn’t really mean what it appears to say; it only applied to situations thousands of years ago. Even though their motivation might be admirable and they sincerely want to ensure Jewish continuity, it has never worked and 21st century statistics demonstrate it is not working now either. One can’t build the Torah by destroying it. There cannot be Jewish continuity without a truthful presentation of Judaism.
Adhering to absolute truth is not always easy but we have no option. Not only is truth mandated by the Torah, it is also critical in parenting and relationships in general. The mind of a child cannot distinguish between a ‘white lie’ and a lie of another color. When an unwanted acquaintance or visitor calls or comes to the house, and the parent tells the child, “tell them I am not home,” that parent is giving the message that it is okay to lie when it is convenient. It might be uncomfortable or unpleasant to go to the door and tell the person you can’t speak now or at least to tell your child to say that you are not available but it’s much easier to lie. However, by doing so you are giving the overt message that lying is acceptable as long as it’s not a big lie. When a parent lies about a child’s age to get free or reduced admission to a theme park, the message is clear: You can lie to save money.
Whether it’s Judaism, relationships, parenting, or sometimes just getting through the day, confronting the truth is one of life’s greatest challenges. Moses’ refusal to deviate from truth, regardless of the consequences, has served has a model for all succeeding generations; the Torah and Judaism we possess today are a result of thousands of years of Jews who refused to distort what they knew to be true. That does not mean they were perfect in their observance but they did not allow their personal challenges or their own level of observance, or lack of it, to distort the truth.
May we all learn from and follow the paradigm set forth by Moses.
(Sources: Rav Chaim Shmulevitz, Sichos Mussar 5731:11; Twerski on Chumash p. 211)