The Talmud is famous for its stories and parables. My favorites are those so allusive and ambiguous that we can hardly know what to make of them.
Consider the following, which I recently rediscovered. I taught it (that is, confessed to my students that I didn’t “get it”) years ago and then forgot all about it. Then, one day, while preparing Daf Yomi, there it was, smack in the middle of Sanhedrin 97a.
I’m still not sure what to make of it; but nowadays I’m experienced enough to express my lack of imagination in the form of learned bafflement. So here we go:
Said Rava: There was a time when I claimed there was no Truth in the world.
Then one of our Masters, and Rav Tavut was his name (and others report: Rav Tavyume was his name), told me that if they’d give him all the wealth of the world, he would never speak deceptively.
One time he chanced upon a town, and Truth was its name. And no one there spoke deceptively, and no one there died before his time.
He took a wife from among them, and raised two children with her.
One day his wife was sitting and washing her hair. Her neighbor came and knocked on the door. He thought it immodest to reveal what she was doing and said, “she’s not here.”
Immediately, his two children died.
The people of the town came to him and asked: “What’s this all about?”
He told them all that happened.
They said to him: “We beg of you! Get out of here before you bring Death upon all of us!”
Now, we all know that Truth is precious and rare. But Rava, the teller of the tale (by way of Rav Tavut — or maybe it was Rav Tavyume?), originally doubted that Truth existed at all!
Really? Wasn’t Rava a great sage of the oral Torah? Wasn’t he immersed in learning? A veritable oiker harim (“uprooter of mountains”) by virtue of his powerful mind? How could he doubt the existence of Truth — even to the point of being unsure of the very informant whose tale he relates?
Well, apparently, doubt he did. But he was comforted in his skepticism by Rav Tavut’s (or Rav Tavyume’s) personal testimony that Truth indeed existed — not in the bais midrash, mind you, and not in the hearts of great sages, nor even in the scrolls of the Torah and the prophets.
Truth was alive, it seems, in a scarcely known town visited by virtually no one and well off the beaten-path of Torah scholarship. Now, if not of Torah, of what does the Truth in the town called Truth consist?
In the simple fact of calling things what they are.
As a reward for upholding the integrity of language the residents of Truth live out the span of life ordained by their Creator, suffering neither accidental death, dismemberment, calamitous disease, or the ravages of one’s fellow creatures.
Call President Obama! Let Truth be the single provider!
Unfortunately, as it happens, the standard of Truth is very uncompromising. Rav Tavut (or Rav Tavyume) tells a little “white lie” to protect his wife’s privacy from a prying neighbor. To the balabuste banging on the door he could have said, “Sorry, Rivkele is indisposed.”
Instead, he claimed, “She’s not in!”
Not a huge deception, really. Can it possibly matter whether Mrs. Tavut is doing her hair or engaged in retail therapy at the local Best Buy? She’s unavailable all the same. Why does this minor discrepancy between Truth and its representation draw the consequence of the death of Rav Tavut’s innocent children, the very children raised wholly in Truth?
The point of the parable seems to be that even the tiniest misrepresentation of the most insignificant reality causes an immense crack in the cosmos that permits entry to the entropic forces that bring annihilation to us all.
Personally, I find the lack of proportion between Rav Tavut’s “white lie” and its deathly consequences appalling. Surely there are some truths that are best left obscured? Is reality so fragile (or important!) that it can’t bear the weight of a discrete fib or two to protect another’s dignity? Aren’t we prohibited from shaming our neighbor in public?
Well, if you put it that way . . .
But maybe that way wasn’t the way it was. Perhaps, something less noble motivated our sage? Perhaps he harbored a grudge against his wife or their neighbor, and felt threatened by their chumminess? Was he undermining his wife’s independence rather than preserving her privacy? Wasn’t it, after all, his wife’s prerogative to decide whether she wanted company while doing her hair?
Or, let’s face it, there might be an even darker interpretation. Might it have been “mikvah night” at the Tavuts? After all, the Missus was bathing! Could the sage have bent the truth in order to ensure a cozy evening for the exercise of his own lust? Even subliminally? As the saying goes: “The greater the tzaddik, the greater the yetzer!”
We can never know. All we know is that the Tavuts (or Tavyumes) were run out of town, lest their own breach cause the unraveling of the tapestry of Truth that protected the world of Truth from the corrosive power of the Lie.
What do we learn from Rava’s parable? I’m not sure. Is the veneer of respectability we treasure so vulnerable that it cannot bear the scrutiny of the Truth? Conversely, is the harsh Truth so important as to trump the simple decency and compassion of the “white lie?”
Let every reader decide! But if you choose Truth, Rava is here to tell you: Truth is a rough neighborhood!