“Let us begin by committing ourselves to the truth, to see it like it is and to tell it like it is, to find the truth, to speak the truth and live with the truth.” 

That sounds like good advice…except that those words were proclaimed by Richard Nixon at the 1968 Republican convention. Given what we now know about Nixon, it makes better sense to invoke the words of Billy Joel, who sings that “honesty is hardly ever heard.” [Scroll to the bottom of the posting for a video of Joel performing the song.]  

Distressingly, the evidence seems to suggest that Joel was right.  We know that it’s true of our current batch of national political leaders, when we have to rely on non partisan fact checking organizations to weigh in every time our presidential candidates open their mouths.  And we know that it’s true of American adults in general. 
  

For example,  a University of Massachussetts psychologist gathered 120 adults together a few years ago, and invited them to sit down in pairs for some brief small talk.  As part of the experiment, the conversations were videotaped.

Later, participants were asked to watch themselves, and to count the number of lies that they told.  The average student lied THREE TIMES during these interchanges – one lie every 3.3 minutes!

Lying, of course, is not just something that adults do.  The Josephson Institute of Ethics recently surveyed thousands of students, ranging from 6th graders to college students.  Seventy five percent described themselves as “serial liars” and freely admitted that they would not hesitate to lie, if it would bring them some kind of advantage.

In light of that statistic, perhaps it shouldn’t have come as such a surprise to us last spring when news of the cheating scandal at Stuyvesant High School, one of the leading public schools in the City, broke.  More than 60 students have been implicated in the mess there, which included the sharing of answers in multiple sittings of the Regents Exam, transmitted via cell phone.

Even more disturbing was the recent word of an epic scandal at Harvard, whose administration now accuses more than 100 undergraduates of copying from the same study guide for a simple open book/take home final exam.  Oh the bitter irony for our Cambridge  friends….where the Harvard  motto is naturally Veritas, Latin for truth.

Billy Joel’s observation that “honesty is hardly ever heard” is hardly earth-shattering.  Nor is it new.  For two millenia, our rabbis have been struggling to come to terms with the fact that we humans lie.  Intentionally or not: it happens.  And as a result, the prayer that we recited at the beginning of this evening’s service…Kol Nidre…was composed.

Kol Nidre is our plea that all of the vows and promises that we made in the last year, and all the half-truths and outright lies that we told, be forgiven. 

For me, the prayer is powerful because it gives us the opportunity to begin the process of teshuvah, or repentance…by offering us the chance to communally admit to the lies we’ve told.  Confessing our wrongs, of course, is just the first step of teshuvah.  It is always followed by a real commitment on our part to turn the page on the behavior in question, so as to insure self improvement in the year ahead.

But before we can consider how to stop lying, we have to begin by asking ourselves: why do we lie in the first place?

In his book, The Cheating Culture, David Callahan argues that we are lying now more than ever in order to acquire wealth.

Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with harboring the desire to be financially secure and successful. The key, according to Callahan, is to not let this desire take over our lives.  If we examine ourselves more closely, Callahan believes that we will find that – time and again – we are willing to violate our own ethical standards if it means making a little more money, or securing a position for even greater future professional advancement. 

The Stuyvesant and Harvard cheaters are perfect illustrations of Callahan’s argument.  Take a group of proven academic superstars and tantalize them with the possibility of even stronger grades, and an even higher GPA, and they will do it…even if they rationally know that it’s a stupid idea that could have serious repercussions. They do it because they are under incredible pressure to perform….to get the best possible grades, to set up the best college application, or the best grad school application, or for the best internship….all in order to secure the “best” job at Goldman Sachs, or wherever it is that the uber-successful fantasize about working these days.

I need not tell you that lying and cheating are not just the provenance of the Ivy League.  Every American wrestles with the question of honesty each spring, as we prepare our tax returns.  Consider this statistic: the IRS collects approximately $300 billion less than it is supposed to each year, because people fail to pay everything that they owe.   Unpopular though this may be, the fact is that when we avoid paying taxes that we are legally and ethically obligated to pay, we are acting deceitfully to ourselves and to our country. 

Fellow parents in the room: we are often guilty of additional acts of dishonesty when we become overly concerned about the future earning potential of our kids. 

Consider the case of former Wall Street analyst Jack Grubman.  Several years ago, Grubman deceitfully upgraded the rating on AT&T’s stock, in the hopes that former Citigroup chairman and AT&T stockholder Sanford Weill would help get Grubman’s twins into the elite preschool at the 92nd Street Y.  I don’t know if Grubman’s kids were ever admitted.  But I do know that he was hit with a $15 million fine from the SEC, and was permanently banned from securities trading for the rest of his life.

Yet my sense is that we don’t just lie for financial or professional gain.  We also lie to bolster our own self esteem.

Some among us are paralyzed by a sense of self doubt and self worth, which leads us to conclude that the only way to cope is to lie – to create an elaborate fantasy world, where we can be in denial about who we really are. 

I’m especially worried about this issue, in light of the unique technological age that we inhabit.  When we go online, we have the option of engaging with others as anonymously as we want.  There are little or no safeguards in place to monitor how truthfully we represent ourselves on social networking platforms, on dating websites, in chatrooms, or in the virtual universe known as Second Life.

What we tend to forget is that the basic ethical values that govern our “real-world” day to day lives also remain in play while we’re online.  If we lie about who we are online, and then go to meet an online friend in person, we need to remember that the hurt that we cause is no different than the pain we inflict by lying in the real world. 

It goes without saying that our own Jewish tradition is firmly opposed to lying.  Suffice it to say that the Torah feels so strongly about the dangers of widespread lying that dishonesty is prohibited multiple times within the Ten Commandments alone!

On this day of Yom Kippur, it’s worth pointing out that the prohibition against lying is also echoed in our machzor.  Throughout this day of confession, we recite the words: al cheit shechatanu lifanecha b’chachash u’vichazav – for the wrong we have committed before You, O God, by engaging in fraud, and in speaking words of falsehood.

Interestingly, unlike some other religious traditions, Judaism does permit lying in very limited circumstances.  Often the value of truth-telling is weighed against hurting a person’s feelings.  For example, the Talmud famously commands us to compliment a bride on her beauty on the day of her wedding, even if she is particularly unattractive.  And, the rabbis would rather us keep our feedback to ourselves, if Grandma’s cooking has taken a turn for the worse.

But outside of these limited exceptions, our tradition is uniformly opposed to lying.  Channeling the story of the boy who cried wolf, the Talmud notes: “Such is the punishment of a liar that, even when he speaks the truth, no one listens.”  Rabbi Joseph Telushkin notes that this is not just about others trusting us.  He writes that liars themselves often have a hard time trusting other people, since liars become paranoid – unsure if those around them are lying just like they are.

How do we avoid that trap?  Beyond the simple recommitment to tell the truth more (which I of course strongly recommend), how can we change the way that we think about our behaviors, and the patterns in our life that enable them?

1700 years ago, St. Augustine wrote that “when regard for truth has broken down […] all things remain doubtful.”  What he meant was that the mutual trust that we share with one another…the trust that allows any society to function properly…will eventually break down if widespread lying goes unchecked. 

There is a great deal of evidence to confirm Augustine’s assertion: studies show that we lie considerably less to the people that we are already in relationship with – the people that are a regular part of our community. 

One solution that we should be focusing on, then, is strengthening the relationships we have with others.  Unfortunately in this day and age, we live socially disconnected lives.  Forget about the fact that we have fewer friends than Americans of 20 or 40 years ago.  We often don’t even know the names of our next door neighbors!  Gone are the days of small town America, or life in the Eastern European shtetl, where everyone knew everyone else; where a total lack of privacy also meant that there really wasn’t that much opportunity to lie to your friends and neighbors. 

Our tradition imagined that this would be the ideal life that Jews would be living every single day – one where we are intimately connected with the people who surround us.   

This is one reason that we have Yom Kippur in the first place.  Yom Kippur is not just our Day of Atonement.  It is also our Day of At-one-ment.  The rabbis presumed that we would be very social people 364 days of the year, and that we would need this one day on the calendar to enjoy a little privacy and introspection. 

The trouble for us is that we are alienated from others – and are at-one with ourselves, our computers, and our cell phones all year long!

Let us take this Yom Kippur to try and restore a sense of balance to our lives.  We should strive to spend a little less time in relationship with our electronic devices, and a little more time in relationship with the people that surround us…here at the synagogue, with our friends and family in each other’s homes, and with our neighbors.  For, from these relationships springs an almost automatic behavior modification system.  It is a fact: the more bound up in someone’s life we are, the less likely we are to lie to them.

Our tradition imagines a world where we might rely on each other – where our relationships would be an automatic system of checks and balances so that we could monitor each other’s honesty.  But if we are not seeking out relationships – then that system of checks and balances cannot work.  We will be free to lie with even greater frequency, and our society will suffer because of it. 

Sadly Billy Joel’s prophetic vision of our future will become real: Honesty will hardly ever be heard. 

Like a gift, though, Yom Kippur arrives on our doorstep each autumn as a second chance…an opportunity for us to choose to stop lying, and to re-embrace the truth.

As the American Jewish poet Merle Feld put it:

I am grateful for this,
A moment of truth,
Grateful to stand before You in judgment.


You know me as a liar
And I am flooded with relief
To have my darkest self exposed at last.

Every day I break my vows –
To be the dutiful child,
Selfless parent, caring friend,
Responsible citizen of the world.

No one sees, no one knows,
How often I take the easy way,
I let myself off the hook,
Give myself the benefit of the doubt –
Every day, every day.

On this day, this one day,
I stand before You naked,
Without disguise, without
Embellishment, naked,
Shivering, ridiculous.

I implore You-
Let me try again.

Shanah Tovah.

 


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