This week we witnessed the downfall of one of television’s celebrated news anchors- Brian Williams. Mr. Williams admitted that he might have “misrepresented” an incident which he reported during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Mr. Williams said that during the war, his helicopter was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. Other crew members aboard a different plane said that the helicopter where Williams was present was not actually hit. Others are suggesting that Williams may have also lied on a number of other occasions. Why would Brian Williams have lied about this and/or other events? Why does anyone for that matter feel the need to lie?
I believe that while there are instances in which it is permissible to lie, the reason behind why people resort to lying is because they are trying to find a way to build themselves up. Politicians lie to us and make false promises in order to show a sense of strength and leadership. Celebrities falsely flaunt their accomplishments to increase their fame and notoriety. But ultimately, because the lies are false, they fail to accomplish their goal. The benefits from lying may actually not be worth the sacrifice that we are making in terms of trust and our own personal character development.
There is a verse in this week’s parsha which states, “midvar sheker tirchak”- keep your distance from lies. Interestingly, the Torah does not say in absolute terms that we are forbidden to lie, but that we need to stay far away from lies. Maimonides explains that the real reason we must make the effort not to lie is because lying undermines our own personal character. When lying becomes a habit, not only do we fool others but we also begin to fool ourselves. We actually begin to believe our own lies. Lying is harmful to our personal character and when we get so wrapped up in our falsehoods, we lose the ability to relate to others with authenticity.
We often see children use lies as a way of elevating their own status amongst their peers or as a way of exiting a sticky situation so as to avoid blame. We need to remind our children and students that lying is not the answer. We have to teach our kids that truth and integrity are critical to our moral compass, and to developing a healthy character as well.
Gil Perl, Head of School at Kohelet High School in Philadelphia, wrote about an assembly that took place at his school this week. The story had a deep impact on me. The main speech was given by one of his own students about his recent personal struggle with mental illness. This student spoke to the entire student body about how his behavior spiraled into a deep depression. In his speech the student poignantly said:
“I’m sure many of you have wondered where I have been these past few weeks. To answer that question I must rewind to a little over a month ago. Over the weekend before we returned from Winter Break I began to feel guilty because I had lied to numerous amounts of people including friends, family, and even strangers. I lied about academics, ACT scores, colleges, wealth, and more. As the guilt began to eat away at me, I began to feel worse and worse. I told my mom that I needed to see a therapist as soon as possible..”
Ultimately, after a stay in a hospital, this student returns to school, and needs to share with his friends, to unburden his heart. This student displayed courage and integrity, and he made it important to demonstrate the need for others to be comfortable speaking about psychological health and well-being. This show of character is exactly the opposite of a person who is stuck in an unhealthy world of lies, desperate for attention, even at the cost of personal integrity. The idea that honesty and integrity allow us to be psychologically and morally healthy is what Maimonides wants us to strive for and why the Torah cautions us to keep our distance from lying.
Brian Williams will pay dearly for his lies. Is it really worth it to compromise our character for a few more moments of glory?