Truth in Judaism is more than accuracy. Truth implies morality, and though we human beings cannot fully know the truth, we must nevertheless endeavor to seek it out. Sometimes, a truth is particularly difficult to hear - and those can be the most important truths to bring into our lives.
This week’s Torah portion is a lesson in seeking out the hard and holy truth. It’s a difficult lesson to learn, a lesson our ancestors have struggled with for millennia, and it remains one of the most important tasks that face us individually and as a community.
Our parashah opens with God instructing Moses to send advance scouts to reconnoiter the promised land, to report back about how plenteous is the land and how formidable its current residents. Twelve chieftains, one from each tribe, spy out the land, and return to deliver their account to Moses, Aaron, and the whole community of Israel.
First they report: The land flows with milk and honey, and its fruit is astonishingly bountiful. But, “the people who inhabit the country are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large” (Num. 13:28).
And then, they offer commentary. Caleb, of the tribe of Judah, says: “Let us by all means go up, and we shall gain possession of it, for we shall surely overcome it” (v. 30). Later, he will be supported by Joshua, Moses’ destined heir.
But the leaders of the other twelve tribes demure. They insist: “We cannot attack that people, for it is stronger than we are” (v. 31). The land devours its settlers, and those who live upon it are giants.
Faced with two interpretations of the facts, the people must make a choice. The simple, if disappointing, conclusion that the land is unassailable; or the fantastic claim that God will grant them supernatural success in their attempt to conquer the land.
We all know how the story ends. The people believe the calumnies of the majority and threaten mutiny against Moses and Aaron. In punishment, they are doomed to wander the desert for the rest of their lives, delaying entry to the promised land by an entire generation. This has come to be the Torah’s greatest example of our eternal quest for truth.
Truth, in Judaism, is distinct from fact. Facts are records of reality, reporting on events or circumstances that can be verified beyond dispute. Truth, in contrast, is the meaning of reality, the implication of facts on our lives and on the world.
Notably, all the scouts agreed with the basic facts. They concurred that the land was good and that its inhabitants were fierce. But while Joshua and Caleb emphasized the land’s fruitfulness, the other spies insisted that it was unconquerable. Joshua and Caleb insist that if the people trust in God, no number of fearsome giants can overcome the Creator of the Universe. But if they have already forgotten the miracles of the exodus, then they may as well head back to Egypt to submit once more to a life of slavery.
The message of Joshua and Caleb is what I call the hard and holy truth. It’s the interpretation of the facts that is hard to accept, that leads down a difficult path, but which ultimately brings us closer to the divine source of goodness. The message of the other twelves spies is referred to as a calumny or a lie, a perversion of the truth that leads people away from God. It is our moral duty to try to determine when in our own lives we’re faced with such a choice and to reach always for the truth even when it seems challenging or inconvenient.
Much of the question of determining what’s true is determining who you can trust. If we can just know who is reliable and who isn’t, then that will help us define credible sources of truth.
But to be frank, Judaism classically hasn’t been very optimistic about this approach. The sources of our tradition overwhelmingly teach us not to trust other people; rather, we are to put our faith only in God. We read in the Psalms, “Put not your trust in princes, nor in any human being, in whom there is no help” (146:3). The prophet Jeremiah says plainly, “Cursed is the one who trusts in a human being. … Blessed is the one who trusts in God” (17:5, 7). And the medieval sage Bahya ibn Pakuda wrote, “Trust in God … because the Almighty will remove good fortune from whoever trusts in someone else” (Duties of the Heart, Fourth Treatise on Trust, Introduction 3).
But of course there’s a problem. Unlike Jeremiah, we don’t have God speaking to us, teaching us personally wrong from right. We don’t really have the option to rely exclusively on God. Instead, imperfect though the system is, we’re forced to trust others, even complete strangers, when making important decisions. That’s why the prophet Zechariah commands us:
דַּבְּרוּ אֱמֶת אִישׁ אֶת רֵעֵהוּ
Speak truth to one another (8:16).
Truth, our tradition teaches us, has a moral component. It leads us—as it were—to God or, by extension, to the sacred values that God represents. If the implications of an interpretation would lead us to make bad choices or to support or promote a harmful cause then even if it is grounded in and consistent with the facts, it is not truthful.
So, practically speaking, our tradition urges us to look for the truth in the words of everyone we encounter, whether or not we are predisposed to agree with them. Truth is about the content of the message, not the character of the messenger. And even when a truth is hard to hear, if it’s right, then—unlike our ancestors in the Torah portion—we are bound to follow it.
This is a dilemma face all the time. Competing authorities vie for our attention and our allegiance, insisting that their view is the right one. Often, how we feel and what we do must be based on whom we trust. This applies on the national scale just as much as on the personal level.
Politically, recent testimonies delivered before the Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation into Russian interference with American elections have exposed differing accounts of the facts. More broadly, different news outlets and the politicians they cover regularly offer distinct views of the country. And more broadly still, Americans continue to wrestle with the ongoing tension between personal experiences and opinions—expressed through social media outlets like Twitter and Facebook—and the more curated depictions offered by the mainstream media.
And of course, trust is critical in our personal lives as well. We advise friends who are in conflict, each of whom seeks our support. We search for a stable life partner, navigating a sea of potential relationships. We weigh loved one’s suggestions as we seek to mend a fraying bond between parent and child.
In the end, our tradition urges us to approach all people—whether we agree with them or not—with both skepticism and respect. R. Yehoshua said: “You should regard every person you meet as a potential thief, and you should also honor them as if they were the greatest sage.” Remembering the basic human dignity of all who claim to be truth is essential to our quest.
Whether thinking globally or personally, the assessment is the same – which stories lead us down a path of love, peace, and justice; and which interpretations leads us away. It can be very hard to distinguish between a chorus of voices all clamoring for our attention, but strengthened by the example of our tradition and the support of one another, we can succeed. And when we do, when are able to accept the hard and holy truth, then we will be one step closer to the peace of mind Jeremiah describes of one who has placed his trust in God:
[You] shall be like a tree planted by waters,
Sending forth its roots by a stream:
It does not sense the coming of heat,
Its leaves are ever fresh;
It has no care in a year of drought,
It does not cease to yield fruit (17:8).
May we search for and find the hard and holy truth that leads us to refreshing waters. May truth spring forth from the ground, and may we find ourselves both trusted and trusting in our moments of greatest peace.
 Derech Eretz Rabbah 5.
“To be effective, the preacher's message must be alive; it must alarm, arouse, challenge; it must be God's present voice to a particular people.”