by Rabbi Josh Warshawsky
“To be honest…” I’ve got a problem this phrase. I’ve noticed people say these three words a lot. Have you said them recently? Every time I hear them, I think to myself, “why do these words need to be said”? Shouldn’t I assume that the words coming out of your mouth are honest? Why would I assume otherwise? These words lead us to believe that any other words that have been said or will be said may actually not be truthful. What kind of society does that mean that we live in? In a time where it is becoming increasingly more difficult to discern fact from fiction, when one of the richest people in the world can just buy an entire social media enterprise on a whim, honesty feels more important than ever.
There is a beautiful midrashic teaching going back to the third day of creation, the day that the grasses and vegetation were created. The verse says, “And The Holy One said, let the Earth sprout vegetation” (Breishit 1:11). The word for vegetation (grass) in Hebrew is Deshe. Rav Mordecai Yaffe (1500’s Prague) teaches that it shouldn’t only be read on face value as “vegetation.” Rather, “DeShE” is an acronym for: Din (justice), Shalom (peace), and Emet (Truth). These three things are the roots of the earth, the foundations of human existence and the conditions by which humanity can exist. Without them, there is war amongst humanity, and desolation.
You may be familiar with the teaching from Pirkei Avot that the world stands on three things, Torah, Avodah, and Gemilut Chasadim (Torah, worship, and lovingkindness). Here is another three-legged support system for the world: Justice, Peace, and Truth. Without any of these three, the world devolves back into chaos. And although these three were planted like grass before human beings were even created, they can’t last on their own! They need to be cared for, sustained, watered, and lifted up.
We learn in this week’s Torah portion, Acharei Mot,
“וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם אֶת־חֻקֹּתַי וְאֶת־מִשְׁפָּטַי אֲשֶׁר יַעֲשֶׂה אֹתָם הָאָדָם וָחַי בָּהֶם
You shall keep My laws and My rules, by the pursuit of which you human beings shall live (Lev. 18:5)
Reb Moshe Chaim Ephraim of Sudilkov, known as the Degel Machaneh Efraim, lived in Ukraine in the 1800s. He notices the letters in Atem (you) are more than just letters. They are the letters of Emet, truth. That’s what it really means to v’chai bahem, to live by the commandments. To lift up truth, to lift up those who cannot lift themselves up, and to make sure that all human beings are free to live in peace.
We just celebrated Earth Day last week. So this Shabbat, may we take this message to heart and strive to care for justice, peace, and truth the same way we care for the vegetation on the earth.