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Home » Matot, Questions of Ethics

Matot: Dishonesty

Submitted by on July 15, 2014 – 9:53 pmNo Comment | 6,081 views

Social or Ritual?

They tell a story of a dying man, who called his son to his bedside. “Son,” he said, “let me tell you the two ironclad rules by which I ran my life. First, your word is gold. If you give it, you must keep it no matter the price. Second, never give your word…”

Of all the social ills, dishonesty seems the worst. A promise should be good as gold. When we give it, others should be able to rely on it. When we oblige ourselves and don’t follow through, promise and let others down, we break a social contract, compromise our integrity and lose our reputation. We can’t be respected if we don’t respect ourselves.

But, the Torah takes it further. The Torah treats a broken word as a sin against G-d, [1]not just man. It isn’t merely a social sin, it’s also a ritual sin. Even breaking an entirely personal oath, such as I will swim this afternoon, is a sin against G-d. Why is it a sin to break promises that we make to ourselves?

At first blush we might assume that it is sinful because our integrity is compromised when we become accustomed to breaking our word. It begins with breaking a promise to ourselves and leads to dishonesty with others. Yet, the fact that the Torah calls it a sin against G-d indicates that there is more to breaking our word than the social contract. Why are words so sacred?

To answer that question we must first ask, what are words? Well words are comprised of letters, but what where do letters come from?


As science understands it today, letters are sounds called phonemes that exist in the brain. As the brain develops, a child learns to translate these cerebral sounds into actual consonants and vowels. This is called the motor speech process, during which the child learns to use muscles in the larynx, palate and tongue to articulate letters.

So far so good, but where do these phonemes come from? How do they lodge in the brain? Are we born with them? Our best guess is that we learn these sounds in-utero by hearing our mothers speak. Yet, there must be more to it because scientists are able to measure in-utero reaction to speech even before the fetus develops the ability to hear. Phonemes can’t be learned by hearing others talk if the fetus can’t hear yet. So how does the fetus recognize the sound of the spoken word?

Ancient Kabbalists held that letters are embedded within us. We are conceived with letters present deep inside our brains.[2] Our souls descend from on high filled to the brim with letters. The phonological process doesn’t generate our knowledge of letters, it stimulates what is already embedded in the deep chambers of our souls and inner reaches of our minds.

This is why it takes no conscious thought to articulate a letter. To be sure, it takes a while to learn a new letter, but once learned, articulation is instantaneous. The moment you think of a word, the letters form themselves. We often need to work on formulating a sentence, sifting, weighing, considering and discarding words until we decide on the right ones. But once we decide on the word, it takes us no time at all to formulate the letters. They rise as if unbidden, from mind to mouth. How? From where? From the inner recesses of our soul.

If this is true, we gain an entirely new appreciation for the importance of words. Letters are not only conveyers of information, they are materials that hail from deep within ourselves. When we utter words and invest them with a commitment, we virtually invest a piece of ourselves with a commitment. We pledge, our very being, our inner core, to our word.

When we fail a pledge, we break with our very selves, creating dissonance between our essence and our behavior. When our behavior doesn’t reflect our essence, we become fragmented and rudderless. We lose touch with our inner selves.

When we give our word, no matter whom we give it to, others, G-d or even ourselves, we aren’t merely duty bound to fulfill it,dishonesty- innerstream.ca the integrity and wholeness of our being depends on it. It isn’t only our honor at stake, but our soul. When there is dissonance between me and my inner core, there is dissonance between me and G-d. My soul is one with G-d, when I am cut off from myself I am cut off from G-d.

It is no wonder that the Torah describes all oaths as commitments to G-d. When we invest our essence in the letters of an oath, we put our integrity with G-d on the line. It is also no wonder that the Torah discourages oaths. The stakes are too high. It places our integrity at risk and separates us from G-d.


Letters are both tangible and ethereal. On the articulated level they are audible sounds formed by the flexing of physical muscles. Yet, on the higher level they are phonemes, representation of sounds inside our brain. On the deepest level they are spiritual forces lodged inside our souls.

Letters then, are a metaphor for creation. What are we? On the surface we are tangible beings in physical bodies, living a tactile life. On a deeper level we are spiritual, psychological, intellectual and emotional entities. We reside within physical bodies, but that is not who we are.

On the deepest level, we are creations of an infinite and grand being, whose vastness is so abstract and beauty so exquisite as to be found only within the mysteries and secrets of the concealed.

What are we really? Tangible, emotional or extensions of the Divine? The best answer is all three. We are each of them. Though on the surface we appear to be shallow and tactile we are in fact deep and mysterious; immeasurable by any known scale.

This is why humans are capable of both extremes. We can be crude and despicable, graceful and holy. We are capable of dishonesty and decadence, generosity and beauty. Of being self-centered and Theo centered. It depends on which dimension we access. The easy choice is to exist only on the physical plane. The challenge is to rise higher. Each day, each week, each month and each year, to a higher and ever higher plane.

Rising above ourselves and our pettiness is how we access the higher dimension of self. Maximizing our potential and living up to our personal promise is how we access our higher, G-dly dimension. This goal isn’t accomplished in a day. It takes a lifetime.

Acknowledging that we are greater than our weaknesses, seeking a way out of our addictions, probing the depths of our beings and accessing our deeper dimensions allows us to rise above the forces that tie us down. They enable us to mend relationships, reconcile weaknesses, strengthen character and take responsibility for our future. Ignoring, neglecting or even denying all that is not only a terrible waste, but true dishonesty with ourselves.

We are letters. The recipe for success is within us. Failure or even mediocrity is unbecoming. We can do more. We can be better. So go out and do jus that. Be the best that you can be.


[1] Numbers 30: 3.

[2] Shaar Hayichud V’haemunah ch. 11.

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