The difference between "fact" and "truth" is the difference between embracing and loving. One is an event, the other is its meaning. When we affirm our own role in drawing truth from facts, we become the authors of our personal stories and collective history.
Journeys of Truth: Writing our History
A tale told by Elie Wiesel:
“What are you writing?” the Rebbe asked.
“Stories,” I said.
He wanted to know what kind of stories: true stories.
“About people you knew?”
Yes, about things that happened or could have happened.
“But they did not?”
No, not all of them did. In fact, some were invented from almost the beginning to almost the end.
The Rebbe leaned forward as if to measure me up and said with more sorrow than anger: “That means you are writing lies!”
I did not answer immediately. The scolded child within me had nothing to say in his defense. Yet, I had to justify myself: “Things are not that simple, Rebbe. Some events do take place but are not true; others are—although they never occurred.”
-- Legends of Our Time (Introduction)
There is no story more true than the Torah.
By this, I do not mean that the events recounted in the Torah happened as described. On the contrary, I believe that only a small fraction of the Torah can responsibly be described as “historically accurate.”
Nevertheless, I maintain with full confidence that Torah is true. As Elie Wiesel asserts in his memoir, Legends of Our Time, “Some events do take place but are not true; others are [true]—although they never occurred.”
To understand Wiesel, we must make a distinction between fact and truth. In everyday language, these two words are generally interchangeable. But pausing to distinguish them can, from time to time, be very helpful.
The word fact comes from the Latin factum, which means “done”; facts are done deeds. Truth, on the other hand, has its origins in words meaning “faithful” and “trustworthy.” So facts represent what is or what was, while truth is what those facts mean. Authentic facts are indisputable, but as anyone who’s ever served on a jury can attest, truth is in the eye of the beholder.
In this regard, I suggest that the Torah is not a factual history book, nor has it ever claimed to be. Rather, the Torah is a truthful response to certain events in our people’s ancient past, a response that sought to bring meaning to the lives of ancient Israelites and their descendants.
To illustrate this point, we can turn to this week’s Torah portion, called Masei or “Journeys.” It opens, “These are the journeys of the Children of Israel…” (Num. 33:1) and includes a list of forty-two Israelite encampments. A sampling:
19They set out from Rithmah and encamped at Rimmon-perez.
20They set out from Rimmon-perez and encamped at Libnah.
21They set out from Libnah and encamped at Rissah.
Is it a fact that our ancestors encamped at each of these forty-two locations? Highly unlikely. And indeed, the Torah does not even want us to think that it’s a record of facts. That’s why the same location described in adjacent verses is called two different names.
So why does our Torah portion so carefully delineate a list of stops along the way from Egypt to the Promised Land?
One answer comes to us from the 11th century. Rashi, perhaps the most influential commentator in Jewish history, suggests that the forty-two stations of the journey are meant to reveal God’s kindness to our ancestors. He writes:
Even though God issued a decree to move them around and make them wander in the desert, you should not say that they were moving about and wandering from station to station for all forty years, and they had no rest, because there are only forty-two stages (Rashi on Num. 33:1).
Rashi goes on to remind us that the first 14 journeys take place during the first year after leaving Egypt, and the last 8 take place during the fortieth year. So, over the course of 38 years, the Israelites only made 20 journeys. Since it was within God’s prerogative to force the Israelites to march incessantly for forty years, our parashah comes to show us our time in the desert wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been.
So, even though the list of encampments has the veneer of dry factuality, it is actually a symbol of the love between God and the People of Israel. For me, that’s the truth of this story, which does not depend on whether our ancestors actually ever pitched a tent at Rimmon-perez or Libnah.
Facts are facts, and they can’t change – but they are also empty and meaningless until we interpret them. If I spend an hour cooking dinner, am I lazy or patient? If I call my mother four times a week, am I selfish or attentive? If I shop at Whole Foods, am I conscientious or wasteful? The truth of my life emerges only after assessing the significance of its facts.
By separating truth from fact, we become the authors of our own history. We wield the power to determine whether the glass is half-full or half-empty, and that authority infuses our perception of ourselves, one another, and God.
For instance, the Torah records two distinct interpretations of those forty years of wandering from wilderness camp to wilderness camp.
When the punishment was first handed down, God raged, “Your carcasses shall drop in the wilderness while your children roam the wilderness for forty years, suffering for your faithlessness” (Num. 14:32-33). This reading holds that God is furious with the Children of Israel and demands retribution.
But 38 years later, Moses takes a different view: “The Eternal your God has blessed you in all your undertakings. God has watched over your wanderings through this great wilderness; the Eternal your God has been with you these past forty years: you have lacked nothing” (Duet. 2:7). This interpretation is much softer. Here, God is a caregiver, watching over us through our hardship.
In both accounts, the facts are the same, but our understanding of God is very different. In one story, God is vengeful; in the other, God is compassionate. And though they differ, both are equally valid and authoritative interpretations preserved in the Torah. In the words of our tradition: Eilu v’eilu divrei Elohim chayim, both this one and that one are words of the Living God (BT Eruvin 13b). Judaism is based on the notion that we can authentically interpret facts differently, and contradictory truths can be valid.
However, the assertion that multiple claims can be true does not mean that any claim can be true. After all, remember why the Israelites were doomed to wander the desert in the first place. Twelve spies were sent to scout out the Promised Land, and all twelve spies saw the same facts: a land flowing with milk and honey and inhabited by large and dangerous men. When the spies returned from their forty-day mission, they reported that the land was great but so were its enemies. Two of the spies, Joshua and Caleb, urged the Israelites to proceed with God at their back, fully confident that they would be able to conquer their foes. But the other ten insisted that their situation was hopeless, spreading calumnies through the camp that they would have been better off dying in Egypt.
Faced with two interpretations of the facts, the People of Israel chose the pessimistic view. They concluded that they were weak, prone to failure, and struggling to survive; they rejected the promise that together—and with God’s help—they could achieve their greatest aspirations.
This, clearly, was the wrong choice. God struck the ten opposing spies with a plague and condemned the entire generation to wander in the wilderness for forty years, one year for each day of the scouting mission. Only Joshua and Caleb would merit entering the Promised Land, for only their message was truthful.
Our choices today mirror the choices faced by our ancestors. Certain facts lie before us, and we bear the responsibility to draw truth from them. Often, we rely on the reports of experts and eyewitnesses, but the final judgment rests with us. Our tradition insists that there is more than one right way to interpret the fact, and it is also equally insistent that some interpretations are just plain false.
How do we tell the difference? We remind ourselves of the theme of this week’s Torah portion: journeys.
The Israelites brought upon themselves a generation of aimless wandering by refusing to move ahead together. And in the end, they came to the land of their dreams only after reconciling with their past and agreeing to build a new future with a new outlook.
We, too, are on a journey. The fact is that many obstacles lie in our path, but the truth of the matter is that they can be overcome. True stories and true histories bring us nearer to our destination, advancing us step by step toward a world of promise and potential. It is upon us to choose those stories, to write those histories, owning up to the trials and traumas of the past and resolving to reshape them into a brighter future.
“What are you writing?” the Rebbe asked.
“Stories,” I said.
About things that happened or could have happened.
“These are the journeys of the Children of Israel…”
And we get to decide where we go next.
 Pi-hahiroth and Pene-hahiroth in Num. 33:7-8.
 See also Num. 32:13.
 See also Deut. 29:4. For a “mixed blessing” interpretation of the wandering, see Deut. 8:2-6.
“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.”