In a recent interview on the Daily Show, Tavis Smiley pointed out that humanity has “always paid a price for ignoring its truth-tellers.” As he examined the life of one of America’s greatest truth-tellers Martin Luther King Jr., in his recently released book “Death of a King,” Smiley pointed out the difficulty that truth-tellers experience. Truth-tellers are all too often disregarded during their generation, only to be proven to be right posthumously, and thus do not live to enjoy the fruits of their labor.
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The prophets in the bible were also no strangers to this sad state of affairs. The Christian gospel of John may have popularly argued “that the truth will set you free,” but Jews instead have a proverb that recognizes that while the “truth never dies, it lives a wretched life.”
The Tanakh reminds us that being a truth-teller when the world around you is in turmoil can sometimes seem like a fruitless endeavor. During the turmoil of ancient Israel, prophets like Hosea (we read him on Shabbat Shuva, the Shabbat before Yom Kippur) argued that a loving God would accept the Israelites if only they would turn back from their wicked ways. Ultimately, he would be proven right, but only because the Northern Kingdom would ignore his words and eventually fall into exile. The southern prophet Jeremiah argued much the same, only to be proven right by the destruction of Jerusalem and his being carried into exile. The one biblical prophet who was successful in telling the truth was Jonah (that’s probably why we read him on Yom Kippur), but, like the others, he too was unable to find satisfaction in his life in this difficult role.
Nonetheless, despite this sad prognosis for truth-tellers, it would seem that in recent weeks our society might finally be starting to listen, because the truth, no matter how wretched it may be, can change the world.
Americans have witnessed two important truth-telling events in recent weeks – the first on a domestic level and the second on a global scale. After spending the summer in denial of the truth, in part because of immense pressure from truth-tellers, the National Football League finally woke up to its players’ struggles with domestic violence. And, the U.S.-led campaign against the Islamic State group and its brutality has led Arab nations to see the truth of how dangerous militant Islam is. Instead of turning a blind eye to the dangers of radical extremism, some Arab countries have taken the first steps toward formally rejecting, as U.S. President Barack Obama noted in his UN address, “the cancer behind violent extremism.”
There is a Hasidic story recorded in Martin Buber’s Hasidic tales about Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchak of Pzhysha (also known as “the Yehudi”), who once met a Torah scholar who was in the process of a three-year vow of silence outside of Torah study. “Rabbi,” said the student, “speech is vain, full of lies, is indulgent, and unnecessary. All I need to do to make my contribution to the world is to study Torah.”
“Young man,” argued Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchak, “go outside and look out into the world of truth. You aren’t contributing to it. Whether our words are in vain or idle or whether they are the truth and for the sake of heaven are up to us alone. And how can you continue to live in this world if you are not contributing to the truth?”
The young scholar subsequently ended his vow of silence.
Despite the challenges our world still faces, Judaism encourages none of us to take a vow of silence this New Year. The truth is not always pretty and not everyone always wants to hear it.
Sometimes it really is wretched and makes us uncomfortable. But hear it they must, or else allow the truth to be drowned out by ignorance.
As we press ahead to live a hayim tovim, a good life, this New Year, let us continue to press ahead in telling the truth so that this year we may create the just and honest world we seek.
Rabbi Dan Dorsch is the Assistant Rabbi at Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston, N.J.