We all have good reasons to hide [from] the truth. But our tradition urges us, from time to time, to take a hard look inward to try to bring the truth to light. How does the metaphor of the Eternal Light, found in this week's parashah, help us understand this difficult task?
Tending the Eternal Light of Truth
There is a saying in our tradition: “The truth is heavy; therefore, few bear it.”
As an illustration, take the case of Nema and Neda Semnani, profiled this week on the radio program This American Life. Each of them has a very different way to bear the hard truth they recently learned about their parents.
Nema and Neda’s parents were born in Iran and went to college in the US. While studying at the University of California, the Semnanis supported the 1979 revolution against the Shah of Iran. When the revolution succeeded, they moved back home.
However, as secular leftists, they found that the new leader of Iran, the Ayatollah Khomeini, was no better than the Shah. So they continued their activism, joining a political resistance movement dedicated to pushing radical Islam out of Iran’s government. Two years later, a militant faction took control of their resistance movement, and the Semnanis quit in protest. After botching a poorly-conceived violent uprising, the group disbanded and its members went into hiding. Though they had taken no part in the violence, Nema and Neda’s parents fled as well.
A year later, when Neda was two years old—and while her mother was pregnant with her little brother—their father was arrested. Then, in Neda’s own words:
On January 25, 1983, at about nine o’clock in the evening, my father and twenty-one of his friends were led onto a snowy soccer pitch in Amol, a small town by the Caspian Sea. There, the Iranian government executed them by firing squad…
For nearly thirty years, this story remained a secret. Nema grew up never knowing his father, and Neda was never told what officially happened. After their mother died in 2010, the siblings unearthed records that bore witness to the true story. For Neda, these documents came as a revelation; but for Nema, they were too heavy to bear. In fact, while Neda is currently writing a book about what happened to their parents, Nema passionately refuses to learn any details. For example, Neda recently has been researching the methods used to torture their father in prison. All Nema knows is the basic fact that his father was tortured; and when asked whether he’d like to know the full story, he replies: “Put that high on the list of things I don’t want to know.”
Nema’s not so different from all of us. He knows a painful truth lies just below the surface, completely within reach, and he chooses not to look at it. Perhaps he’s preserving his own sense of safety. Perhaps he seeks to honor the life and work of his father. Perhaps his fear outweighs his curiosity. Nema has his reasons for hiding from the truth, just as each of us at one time or another does the same.
Jewish tradition has compassion for Nema and others like him, fully admitting that the truth is hard to bear. In the book of Psalms, we read “Kindness and Truth oppose one another” (Ps. 85:11). In other words, what’s nice and what’s true are often not the same. A midrash teaches that this verse goes all the way back to the creation of humankind:
When preparing to create the first human being, God sought the advice of the angels. The angel of Kindness said, “Let him be created because he will dispense acts of kindness.” The angel of Truth said, “Let him not be created because he is full of lies.” What did the Holy One do? God took Truth and cast it to the ground, then created humankind.
This story shows that even God can’t bear the truth sometimes. Even God buries the truth in order to do what is kind.
Many of us, like God in the midrash or like Nema Semnani, bury the truth. The truth can be painful, challenging, or embarrassing. We accumulate a mountain of rationales for turning away from the truth, using pleasant deception to make life easier to live.
But what’s easy isn’t always what’s right.
The midrash doesn’t end with God burying the truth: The angels array themselves before God and challenge God: “Sovereign of the Universe! Why do You despise your seal? Let Truth arise from the earth!” God may have had good reason to bury truth in the moment, but the angels are right in the end – the truth can’t stay buried forever.
What truths have we buried, collectively and individually? And what would it take to bear them?
As a nation, I believe the magnitude of our buried truth is enormous. We have buried the truth of slavery, insisting that the sins of the past have been atoned for and a fresh start has begun. We have buried the truth of misogyny, suggesting that egalitarianism has erased the tendency to moralize and legislate at the expense of women. And we’ve buried the truth of imperialism, valorizing the national government to mythic proportions and relying on it to solve problems that need to be addressed on the local level. To face these truths as a country will require leadership, honesty, and motivation as well as willingness to actually change our behavior.
And the same can be said, of course, for each of us individually. In our family lives and in our personal lives, each of us is aware of something buried, something we fear to face. We have justified hiding this truth from ourselves and others, and this has kept us safer and happier. But from time to time, our tradition urges us to go inward, to look deeply and honestly at our past, and to assess whether it’s still the best decision to keep the truth hidden away. We may say yes, that the truth is too painful to uncover now; but we may also say no, that the time has come to face the truth and to begin the process of reconciliation, atonement, or forgiveness that the truth enjoins upon us.
It is at times like these that we consider an ancient symbol of our tradition, a symbol that was present in the Temple in Jerusalem and which continues to exist even today. We read in this week’s Torah portion of the ner tamid, the eternal light. Moses instructs the Israelites to burn a lamp continually in the presence of the ark of the covenant (Lev. 23:2-4); when the Temple is built in Jerusalem, this practice is continued; and after the destruction of the Temple, the eternal light finds its new home here, above the ark where we keep the Torah scrolls. Why do we locate the eternal light near the Torah? Why not in the social hall or the cemetery? Because in Jewish tradition, Torah is equated with light (cf. BT Megillah 16b) … and so is truth (cf. Ps. 43:3).
The eternal light required constant supervision. Every evening, the priests would relight the fire, making sure that the flame did not go out overnight. The same can be said of the light of truth. It is easy for the fire to die down, for the flames to smolder and nearly extinguish. And even though fire can burn us, it is important not to let it die. We must turn over the coals, stoke the flames, and look directly into the fire from time to time. There are times when we can’t take the heat; but there are also times when we can.
The prophet Zechariah taught us, “These are the things you are to do: Speak truth to one another. Render truth, justice, and peace in your gates” (Zechariah 8:16). Because of this, Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel further taught: On three things the world stands: On justice, on truth, and on peace (Pirkei Avot 1:8). With personal courage and with the help of family and friends, we can speak truth to one another. We can use truth to bring about justice by correcting our behavior, and we can make necessary changes in our lives to create both inner and outer peace.
May each of us find the courage to unbury the truth of the past.
May we continue to tend the eternal flame of truth, illuminating our lives, our relationships, and our whole world.
 See Menachem Meiri’s commentary on Proverbs 17:5: האמת כבד, על כן נושאיו מעטים (see here).
 “Memoirs of a Revolutionary’s Daughter,” available: http://thebaffler.com/salvos/revolutionary-daughter-semnani.
 Genesis Rabbah 8:5, modified.
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