SEVERAL YEARS AGO, a major debate raged in the land concerning a number of intellectual young people who were stranded in the Andes after a disastrous airplane accident. The survivors resorted to cannibalism on the bodies of their dead friends. Otherwise, they would have died of starvation in the bitter cold mountains of the Andes. Did they do right by subsisting on the flesh of their fallen comrades? The question was discussed and argued from coast to coast. As far as Jewish law is concerned, only three cardinal principles cannot be violated for the purpose of saving a life-- idolatry, immorality and murder.

There are difficult problems in other fields that present moral and ethical dilemmas of equal force.

Let us take emet --truth-- as an example. It is known that emet is one of the basic principles of Judaism. Rabban Simeon ben Gamliel said, "The world is established on three principles: truth, justice and peace" (Ethics of the Fathers, 1:18). Please note that truth heads the list.The Psalmist pays special tribute to the one "who speaks truth in his heart" (Ps. 15:2). The imprimatur of God is emet (Yoma 69b). Our sages tell us that when a man will be brought before the heavenly tribunal on the great Yam Hadin , on the Day of Judgment, the first question that will be asked of him will be nasata venatata be-emumah, "Have you been honest and truthful in your dealings?" (Sabbath 31a).

The question that is asked: is truth an absolute value that can never be overridden, or are there situations or circumstances when it can be compromised? There are courses offered at colleges these days which deal with situational human problems that occasionally place one in a moral dilemma. What is one to do when two ethical values come in conflict with one another? Which one is to give way? This issue is raised in a dramatic manner in our sidrah . After the passing of Jacob, the brothers of Joseph became apprehensive and fearful. "Perhaps Joseph will hate us and will repay us for all the evil that we have done unto him" (Gen. 50:15). Why did the brothers suspect: that the old animosity may arise in the heart of Joseph and that he would deal harshly with them and avenge all the cruelties that they heaped upon him? The sages relate, "When they are returning from the burial of their father, they saw that Joseph went to the pit in which his brothers had cast him to recite a blessing" (Tanhuma Vayechi).

As is known, there is a special blessing of gratitude that one is, obligated to repeat at the place where one has experienced a miraculous deliverance. When the brothers witnessed this act of Joseph--that he went out of his way after the funeral to pray at the pit into which they had cast him almost forty years before, they began to tremble. They said to one another, "Evidently Joseph remembers how we have mistreated him and how we have sold him as a slave, and now that our father is gone, he feels free to do with us as he pleases." So they sent a message, "Your father commanded before he died saying, so shall you say unto Joseph: forgive the transgressions of your brothers" (Ibid. 16-17). When Joseph heard their words, he wept and assured them that he would be close to them and support them.

The Talmud deduces from this that mutar lo le-adam leshanot bidvar ha-shalom, that it is permissible for a man to deviate (from the truth) on account of peace (Yevamot 65b). Rashi states, "The brothers deviated (from the truth) because of peace, for Jacob did not command them thus, since he did not suspect Joseph" ( Rashi Gen. 50:16).

Thus we are taught that truth is not an absolute vaue; that when it collides with the ideal of peace, a judicious decisicn is needed for which the principles and guidelines of the Torah should be sought.

The halakhah has always dealt with particular life situations. Truth, the backbone and foundation-stone of society, has to give way when it threatens shalom , or when it does violence to the ideals of chessed and rachamin , kindness and compassion. While it is wrong to tell an outright lie, there are circumstances when telling the absolute truth is an act of cruelty and malice. It would be fiendish, for example, to say to a young girl that she is ugly to look at, or to a baal-haboste that her gefilte fish is inedible. It is heartless to say to a rabbi that his sermons are bad, to a cantor that his singing is out of tune, or to a sexton that his "reading of the Torah" is artrocious. While the facts may be true, the elements of chessed and rachamim are outraged.

Unfortunately there are those who, under the guise of tzidkut --great piety--hurt people needlessly and do violence to the shalom of a community, and even to shalom-bayit. To them one should say, "You are not more pious than the sons of Jacob who did what they had to do because of their desire to put an end to the suspicions, jealousies and enmities which brought so much suffering and sorrow to their family. You do the same. Stop pretending that you are doing what you do because you believe in telling the absolute truth, even if it brings misery and pain to others. Be compassionate and God, in turn, may have compassion on you."

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