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Parshat Chayei Sara: Frankness as Vice and as Virtue

Excerpted from Rabbi Norman Lamm’s “Derashot Ledorot: A Commentary for the Ages – Genesis” co-published by OU Press and Maggid Publishers

Derashot Ledorot front coverMost people have mixed feelings with regard to that uncommon quality called frankness or candor – and that is as it should be. It is something no doubt to be admired, and all too rare in human relations. And yet it can, in the wrong hands, be misused for the wrong purposes and prove dangerous and disruptive. On the one hand, frankness is based on emet, truth, and our tradition teaches that the very seal and insignia of God is truth (Exodus Rabba 4:3). Frankness is a pre-
requisite for clear and uncomplicated human and social relationships. Candor, while it may momentarily be annoying, ultimately proves to be the best guarantee of honorable living. It engenders a greater degree of truthfulness on the part of others as well. “Frankness,” said Emerson, “invites more frankness.” And, on the other hand, it can be a tool of the smug, self-certain, and even the malicious who tyrannize friend and foe alike by their disarming bluntness which goes by the name of frankness.

Perhaps, then, in order to view the quality of frankness from a greater perspective, we ought to recall the ethics of Judaism as taught by Maimonides, in which he gives us a philosophy of character. In general, Maimonides teaches that we should avoid the extremes of character and keep to the “derekh Hashem,” “the way of God,” which he also calls the “shevil hazahav,” “the golden path” (Hilkhot De’ot 1:7). In other words, one should generally follow the path of moderation, although in certain specific instances one may veer more toward one extreme than the other. So it is with the quality of truth-telling or frankness. The two extremes are, one, absolute candor even at the expense of another person’s happiness, sensitivity, and peace of mind, and two, so much kindness and deference to the feelings of people that the truth is never spoken in its fullness, and untruth begins to prevail. Following “the way of God” as explained by Maimonides, we would say that in general one ought to be moderate in his frankness, tempering his manner of expressing the truth with gentleness and sensitive concern for the feelings of others, but that in certain very special cases one must veer toward one of the extremes – in the case of truthfulness to the extreme of greater veracity, more direct frankness, and forthrightness.

One of those special cases where frankness must prevail even at the expense of temporary unhappiness is hinted at in Parashat Ĥayyei Sara, according to the brilliant interpretation of Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, the revered teacher at the Yeshiva of Volozhin, widely known by his initials, Netziv.A great tragedy marred the lives of Isaac and Rebecca. The next parasha tells of the painful confusion with regard to the blessings Isaac offered to his twin sons, Jacob and Esau. Apparently, Isaac favored Esau, and Rebecca preferred Jacob. In order to reserve Isaac’s blessing for Jacob and prevent its being wasted on Esau, Rebecca schemes with her son Jacob, persuading him to do something which runs against the whole grain of his character: to deceive his aged, blind father. The scheme is successful, but the end result is one of unrelieved anguish for all principals. Esau is left embittered, and more vagrant than ever. Jacob has soiled his soul and must flee from his brother into a long and bitter exile. Rebecca, the doting mother, is to die before she ever again sees her beloved Jacob. Isaac is confused and bewildered in the deep darkness that surrounds him in his blindness.

And yet, when we study and analyze the sidra carefully, we find that the tragedy is compounded by the fact that it was totally unnecessary. Isaac did not really favor Esau over Jacob. He merely wanted to prevent his total moral collapse. He wanted to salvage whatever shred of decency Esau still retained. He knew full well the difference in the characters of his two children. He, no less than his wife Rebecca, appreciated the saintliness of Jacob and suffered because of the wildness and sensuousness of Esau. He had never intended to give the blessing of Abraham to anyone but Jacob.

Why then the cross-purposes at which Isaac and Rebecca worked? If they were indeed in total agreement, why this deep and cutting tragedy that destroyed the happiness of the second Jewish family in all history? Because, the Netziv answers in his Emek haDavar, Rebecca never learned how to be frank with her own husband. She was possessed of an inner inhibition which, despite her love for him, prevented free and easy communication with him. It was a congenital defect in her character. If only Rebecca had been frank with Isaac, if only she could have overcome her inhibitions and shyness and taken him into her confidence, they would have discovered that they do, after all, agree on fundamentals – and how much heartache would have been avoided!

And the Netziv sees this quality of restraint and suspiciousness in the very first act the Torah records of Rebecca when she first meets her prospective husband. When she is told by Eliezer that Isaac is coming toward them, what does she do? She slips off her camel, and she takes her veil and covers herself. This was not, says the Netziv, so much an act of modesty and shyness as much as a symbol of a lack of frankness, an uncommunicativeness that was to hamper her happiness the rest of her life. In all her dealings with her husband, she was metaphorically to veil her personality. That veiling presaged the lack of frankness, the restraint between the two. The veil became, in the course of years, a wall which grew ever larger and kept them apart and prevented them from sharing their deepest secrets, fears, loves, and aspirations.

Indeed, that is why the Torah tells us of certain domestic and seemingly purely private quarrels between Sara and Abraham, and Jacob and Rachel. One might ask, why reveal for all eternity the domestic spats between couples? Sara laughs when she is told that she would have a child despite her advanced age and she denies it to Abraham. He turns to her in anger and says, “You did so laugh” (Genesis 18:15). Rachel wants children, and keeps urging Jacob for help. Jacob turns to her and seems quite irritated: “Why do you annoy me? Do you think I am God that I can give you children?” (ibid., 30:2).

We can now understand why these incidents are recorded: they are there for contrast. They show us how the other patriarchs and matriarchs exercised complete candor in their private lives. If there must be a slight argument, let there be one, but let husband and wife be perfectly honest with each other. Let there be no distance between them, no dissembling – no outer politeness which bespeaks an inner remoteness. How different was Rebecca from Sara and Rachel. There was so little frankness in Rebecca’s relations with Isaac, so little straightforwardness – and therefore, so much agony, so much unnecessary pain and frustration.

Indeed, it would seem as if Eliezer, Abraham’s servant whom he had sent to fetch a wife for his son Isaac, recognized this at the very outset. Charged with this grave and significant mission of looking for a wife for Isaac, a worthy mother of the Jewish people, Eliezer feels himself diffident and concerned. He prays for divine assistance, and twice he singles out one element above all others: ĥesed – love, kindness. “May God show my master Abraham ĥesed, may He grant that his son be blessed with a wife whose greatest virtue would be kindness, love, sensitive understanding, self-sacrifice” (see Genesis 24).

If I can find that kind of wife, Eliezer thinks to himself, who will bring ĥesed to her new home, then I will consider my mission successfully accomplished. And yet, after he has met young Rebecca, after he has satisfied himself that this is the right woman for his master’s son, he offers a prayer of thanksgiving in which he surprisingly adds another quality: “Blessed is the Lord God of my master Abraham who has not forsaken ĥasdo, His ĥesed (mercy), and amito, His emet (truth), from my master.” If we read between the lines we discover that Eliezer is quite satisfied that this young woman will bring ĥesed to her home. She will be a kind, devoted, loving wife. But what suddenly begins to disturb his innermost thoughts, perhaps only unconsciously, is that while there will be enough ĥesed, there will be a lack of emet or truthfulness in the sense of candor. There may not be enough frankness because she would be too kind, too fearful, too gentle to speak openly and lucidly with her own husband. How wise was that old and loyal slave of Abraham! Thank you, God, for the ĥesed; now help us with a little more emet.

Domestic life, then, is one of those areas where we ought to leave the exact path of moderation and incline toward one of the extremes, that of greater openness – greater frankness and honesty even at the expense of comfort and unperturbed peace of mind. Even to this day, before the ĥuppa we perform the badeken, or veiling of the bride, recalling the veiling of Rebecca. Yet, as if to emphasize that we intend thereby only the idea of modesty and not that of inhibition, we read the ketuba, in which we include the promise of the husband that he will act toward his wife in the manner of Jewish husbands, who work for, love, and support their wives, and then the key word: bekushta, in truth. Kushta or emet – truth – should be the dominant mood that prevails in the home. Without it, without full and free frankness, husband and wife cannot act in concert with regard to the great issues in life, especially with regard to the greatest gift entrusted to them: their children.

And yet, while frankness is so very important in domestic relations, and while it is a wonderful and indispensable personal quality in all human relations, there is no question but that frankness can be overdone. Truth has the greatest claims on us; but its claims are not absolute. That is why the Talmud specifically permits the talmid ĥakham or scholar to modify the truth in three instances, where complete candor would result in needless embarrassment. Not to tell a lie is a great virtue, but compulsively to tell all, to reveal all your innermost feelings without regard for others, is itself an unethical quality. When Abraham walked with Isaac to perform the Akeida, Isaac asked his father, “I see the fire and the wood but where is the lamb for the sacrifice?” Imagine if Abraham had exercised absolute frankness, unrestrained candor. He would have said: “Sorry son, but it is you I shall have to slaughter upon the altar.” It would have been inhumanly cruel. That is why Abraham preferred to dodge the question with the reply, “God will take care of that.” Or imagine if a physician who had just discovered that his patient is suffering from a terrible and incurable disease were to turn to him and, without any attempt to cushion the news, inform him bluntly of his imminent death. This kind of frankness is subhuman. It is living on the extreme edge of character, against which Maimonides counseled. That is why the halakha says 3 that if a person does not know his relative has died, and you do know it, and he will not learn of it during the next thirty days if you keep silent, then you must keep the information within and spare him the bad news.

Excessive frankness is, thus, a fault; a vice and not a virtue. When a friend begins a conversation with the words, “I want to be brutally frank with you,” you may be sure that he intends brutality more than frankness. A whimsical poet once wrote, “of all plagues, good Heaven, Thy wrath can send, save, save, O save me from the Candid Friend.”

Emet, then, is a virtue, if tempered with graciousness. Emet is important enough to be the connecting link between the Shema and the Amida. Yet we must remember that this emet is not mentioned alone. Along with it we enumerate a whole list of qualities which tend to make truth more palatable, which moderate frankness and make it human. Emet must also be yatziv venakhon vekayam veyashar, proper and straight; it must be ne’eman ve’ahuv veĥaviv veneĥmad vena’im, loyally and pleasantly and attractively presented; even if it is nora va’adir, an awesome and powerful truth, still it must be metukan umekubal, prepared for and acceptable to human sensitivity, and above all, vetov veyafeh, expressed in a manner that is good and beautiful. Frankness, yes; but mentschlich-keit as well. Emet – but up to and including tov veyafeh.

Only then can we be sure that hadavar hazeh aleinu le’olam va’ed, that this truth will remain with us forever.

That is why the halakha maintained that the law of reproaching the sinner (Leviticus 19:17) must be executed with a great deal of delicacy and attention to individual feelings. There is, in Judaism, an ethic of criticism. A frank reproof may be in itself unavoidably painful, but one should minimize the anguish and the guilt and the feelings of inferiority and worthlessness that may needlessly result from it.

Too much frankness – candor with cruelty – is one of the causes of the lapse from religious faith as well. Sa’adia Gaon, in the introduction to his major work, Emunot veDe’ot, lists eight causes of heresy, of skepticism. One of them is: ha’emet hamara, the bitter truth. Truth is often difficult to face, bitter to taste, and people may prefer to flee the unpleasant truth and satiate themselves with sweet vagaries of falsehood. I believe that in our day an even more frequent cause of the disdain some people feel for Judaism is that the truth, Torah, is presented as something bitter and terrible. When, instead of teaching Torah as an ennobling and uplifting doctrine, we force it down the throats of children as something dreadfully boring and meaninglessly restrictive; if it is advocated to adults as something dogmatic and irrelevant, if it is supported not by explanation but coercion, not by an appeal to conscience but by boycotts and smear-literature and stonings, then the emet becomes so bitter as to alienate large sections of our people from Torah. Torah is “sweeter than honey”; it is a crime to present it as dipped in gall. Frankness should not be confused with foolishness, and candor should not be confounded with crude, cruel coarseness.

Frankness, then, is a great virtue. In all of life, but especially in domestic life, is it an absolutely indispensable ingredient of happiness. Because she lacked it, because her personality and innermost heart was veiled, Rebecca’s life was filled with misery. Yet, frankness must be attended by the grace of consideration, delicacy, and sensitivity.

Every morning, we begin the day with the following statement which sums up what we have been saying: “Le’olam yehei adam yerei shamayim beseter uvegalui,” one should always be God fearing, both publicly and privately; “umodeh al ha’emet,” let him always recognize and acknowledge the truth. But once he has acknowledged the truth, once he has learned it, it is always important not to blurt it out unthinkingly. For, insofar as speaking out the whole truth, let him be vedover emet bilvavo, telling all the truth only in his heart. When it comes to telling all that one considers to be the truth, exactly as one sees it and believes it – in all candor and frankness – one must also be judicious, and consider the secret fears and vanities of his fellows, their sensitivities and idiosyncracies. Complete and uninhibited frankness – only bilvavo, in one’s own heart. Otherwise, candor must be wedded to considerateness, ĥasdo and amito, as Eliezer prayed, or emet and yatziv through tov veyafeh, as is our own devoted prayer every day all year long.

For this indeed is, as Maimonides called it, the derekh Hashem, the way of the Lord. And it is this way which has been bequeathed to us by our patriarch Abraham and which we were commanded to teach our children (Genesis 18:19): “For I have known him, to the end that he may command his children and his household after him, that they may keep derekh Hashem, the way of the Lord” – for in this way will righteousness and justice be achieved.

  1. November 24, 1962.