Shiur #07: “Emet”

  • Rav Ezra Bick

            The eighth of the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy, according to the accepted method of enumeration, is the attribute of emet – “truth.”  When considering this attribute, a very simple, obvious question immediately arises: not only would we have not, at first glance, included emet among the divine attributes of mercy, but we would normally associate “truth” with strict justice.  If I sinned, it would appear, then the attribute of truth dictates that I should receive punishment, for this is the true, just and warranted judgment.


            It is possible not to list emet as a separate attribute, and to instead view it as merely a description of the previous attribute – rav chesed.  According to this approach, we would read the phrase, “rav chesed ve-emet” (normally translated as, “abundant in kindness and truth”) as “rav chesed shel emet” (“abundant in truthful kindness”).  The term “chesed shel emet” (“truthful kindness”) means perfect kindness – that contains no element at all of possible benefit for the one who dispenses it.  Thus, commenting on Yaakov’s request to Yosef, “you shall do for me truthful kindness” (Bereishit 47:29), Rashi explains, “The kindness performed for the deceased is truthful kindness, in that one does not anticipate any payback.”  If so, then there is but a single attribute of rav chesed ve-emet, rather than two distinct attributes of rav chesed and emet.


            The Ramban addresses the Thirteen Attributes in his Torah commentary, and explains that emet refers to the kindness the Almighty performs on behalf of descendants after making a promise to their forebears.  Essentially, we deal here with chesed; but once the chesed is backed by a divine promise, it becomes emet – because the promise lends it a quality of strict law.  It thus emerges that emet is, in fact, an attribute of justice, rather than kindness, but it includes an element that originates from God’s kindness to the patriarchs.  This element is no different from the previous attribute, the attribute of chesed, and the nature of emet is essentially one of justice, rather than kindness.  I thus find it difficult to explain why emet would be listed as an independent attribute of mercy.

            The question therefore remains, why is emet considered an attribute of divine kindness, and how does it work to allow the sinner’s continued existence despite his wrongdoing?


            Toward the beginning of Parashat Vaera, God tells Moshe that although He had revealed Himself to the patriarchs, “I did not make known to them My Name of Havaya.”  Rashi explains that God’s revelation to the patriarchs was incomplete, because “I did not reveal Myself to them through My attribute of truth, for I promised without fulfilling [the promise].”  God’s promise to give Eretz Yisrael to the patriarchs and their descendants was not fulfilled during the patriarchs’ lifetimes, and this marked a deficiency in the revelation of God’s attribute of truth.  It emerges, then, that God’s attribute of truth is the attribute which connects the promise with its fulfillment.  We of course know that in God’s essence, there is no gap at all between His will and promise, and their actual fulfillment.  The revelation of His will is meant to immediately amount to the fulfillment of His will.  This is the attribute of truth, whereby the reality perfectly reflects His will.  However, the attribute of truth is at times concealed, because for reasons related to time and how events transpire in this world, promises for the future remain in the future.  This is precisely what happened to the promises made to the patriarchs.  We may conclude, however, that since truth is an essential attribute of God, that which from our perspective is hidden away in the future already exists in reality from God’s perspective.


            Rav Hutner enlists this concept in order to explain the attribute of emet, and to complete his explanation of the attribute of rav chesed (which we discussed in the previous shiur).  The concept underlying rav chesed, as we saw, is the “tipping of the scales” in favor of kindness, the notion that goodness always prevails over evil.  This ultimate triumph of goodness exists in the future, as reflected in Chazal’s comment that Am Yisrael’s future repentance is guaranteed.  At present, the world is governed by the concept of free will, and the balance between good and evil that underlies this principle.  But since God is characterized by emet, and for Him the future exists already in the present, the attribute of rav chesed can act on behalf of the sinner even now.  In other words, the attribute of emet “imports” the decision in favor of goodness from the guaranteed future to the present.


            According to this approach, emet is not an independent attribute as much as a part of the attribute of rav chesed; it forms the bridge between the attribute of future repentance and the kindness of the present.  However, according to Rabbenu Tam’s enumeration of the Thirteen Attributes, we must explain the attribute of emet as an independent attribute, as a separate act of kindness.  We are therefore compelled to develop this concept a bit further so that we can gain a clearer understanding.


            The principle upon which this discussion is based is the importance and significance of time.  Medieval Jewish philosophy, following the Rambam, accepted the premise that the Almighty exists beyond time; meaning, time has no meaning for Him.  The concept that Rav Hutner developed based on Rashi’s comments is in accordance with this axiom: God’s attribute of emet is the attribute which negates the significance of time as far as He is concerned.  From God’s perspective, future and present are one and the same.  We should note that negating the significance of time leads to negating the value of a process, the value of progression.  In the Almighty’s world, values exist in full in their absolute form.  This attribute is called emet.  Anything that differs from this absolute truth is called sheker (falsehood) and has no right to exist.  Truth is integrally related to timeless eternity.  Progression and process have significance only in our world.  Therefore – returning to Rav Hutner’s theory – if the Almighty designates something for our future, it must necessarily already exist in His world.


            We must emphasize that we do mean simply that in contrast to the ideal world in the heavens, our world features processes and progression.  The concept we present here extends beyond that.  The significance of our world is based entirely on the value of process.  In other words, when it comes to values, our world is based upon the precise opposite of the absolutist world of God.  God created the world in order to achieve the value of process.  This is the true foundation underlying the concept of free will that we discussed in our previous shiur.  Why does God want bechira chofshit (free will) if as a result evil could be chosen?  Why is free will a value at all?  God could have just as well created man completely good, naturally inclined to choose only goodness, like the angels.  The answer is that the true meaning of free will extends beyond the possibility of choosing, without being compelled to choose between two equal possibilities.  If this were the case, then bechira would be purely random and bereft of any value and significance.  In fact, this belief is what Chazal refer to as apikorsut.  The Greek philosopher Epicurus who graciously lent his name for the halakhic name for heresy, taught that there are random deviations, to the right or to the left, which do not depend on any previous conditions.  From Chazal’s viewpoint, the introduction of this principle of randomness into the world constitutes the foundation of the denial of Providence (see Rambam, Guide for the Perplexed, 3:17).


            The value of bechira chofshit lies not in the ability to choose between two equal possibilities, but rather in the ability to create something that does not exist in the present.  Science, and Aristotelian (deterministic) philosophy, is founded upon the notion that every phenomenon results absolutely from the sum of its causes, and there is thus “nothing ever new under the sun.”  This is the scientific thinking that has become so firmly entrenched within our minds: if I observe a certain phenomenon, I can determine the causes that preceded it.  If I see a table, then I know that there was a carpenter and wood.  Everything preserves its causes in the present and is precisely equivalent to the sum of its causes, no more and no less.  According to the principle of bechira chofshit, I can create something which is not simply the technical development of past causes, and whose existence cannot be explained by the causes in the present.  In other words, the value of bechira is the value of creation.  The Almighty wants the world to exist with bechirachofshit because He wants creation – that goodness be added in places that were less good.  This is the value of this world.  Before the world’s creation, there was only an absolute value – God – and nothing can be added to an absolute value.  There was thus no concept of development, a process of adding something of value, of creating something better in a world that is not absolute goodness.  The Almighty therefore created an imperfect world, a faulty, deficient world.  Commenting on the Torah’s description of the earth as chaotic, tohu va-vohu (Bereishit 1:2), the Midrash writes that already from the outset of creation, the Almighty beheld the conduct of the wicked and the conduct of the righteous.  Since the world was, by definition, created imperfect, it must necessarily include the wicked.  From amidst this imperfection tzadikim will also emerge, but not as a necessary process like a tree grows from a seed; they will rather emerge as a new creation brought into being through bechira chofshit.


            From this viewpoint, our world stands in opposition to divine truth.  It is built upon sheker – the real possibility that goodness will not exist.  The Almighty created imperfection, which is but a more refined way of saying that He created sheker.  The attribute of Divine Truth cannot help but protest the existence of such a word.


            The Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 8:5) writes:


Rabbi Simon said: At the time when the Almighty came to create Adam Ha-rishon, the ministering angels formed different groups and factions.  Some said he should not be created, and some said he should be created.  This is what is meant when it is written (Tehillim 85:11), “Kindness and truth met justice and peace kissed.”


The angels – which, as clearly indicated by the Midrash’s inference from the verse, refer to different divine attributes: kindness, truth, justice and peace – were divided regarding the question of the human being’s creation.  Some supported the idea, while others were opposed.  Who were the supporters, and who were the opponents?  “Kindness said he should be created, because he does acts of kindness.  But Truth said he should not be created, because he is completely deceitful.”  How do we explain this debate between Kindness and Truth?  Why do we not say that to the contrary, Kindness objected because man is cruel, and Truth argued in favor of the human being’s creation because he sometimes speaks the truth?  The answer is simple.  If the human being sometimes acts kindly and sometimes does not, he may nevertheless be described as a gomel chasadim (dispenser of kindness).  There is value to the kindness he performs, even if he could and should do more.  But if a person sometimes speaks truthfully and sometimes lies, then he is “completely deceitful.”  Truth is an absolute value and does not accept any compromises.  There is no such thing as a little bit of truth.  A little bit of falsehood is equivalent to complete falsehood.  If one does not adhere 100% to truth, then he is not truthful at all.  Somebody who occasionally lies is a liar and can never be trusted.  Therefore, Kindness views the complicated, complex world of the human being as something positive and worthy of existence, whereas Truth sees it as a world of absolute falsehood, something completely negative, bereft of any existential justification.


            The Midrash advances another example of this struggle between the divine attributes: “Righteousness said that he should be created, because he performs righteousness.  Peace said he should not be created, because he is completely contentious.”  Why is man completely contentious?  Sometimes a person fights and wages battles, and on other occasions he lives peacefully.  Peace, like truth, does not accept compromise.  Nobody can fight all the time, but if one lacks total commitment to peace, he is a man of war, a person of strife and contention.  There is no value to the ceasefire announced by somebody who resumes hostilities the next day.  A person’s righteousness has value even if he does not continue that mode of behavior the following day.  But the commitment to peace must be total.  A little bit of war is war and signifies the absolute negation of peace.


            Let us return to the Midrash.  The Creator’s angels cannot agree.  What should the Almighty do?  The Midrash ignores the attribute of peace and concentrates only on the opposition voiced by the attribute of truth: “What did the Almighty do?  He took Truth and cast it to the ground.  This is what is meant when it is written (Daniel 8:12), ‘Truth was cast to the ground’.”  On first glance, this confirms my point.  In order to create man, the Almighty must eliminate truth and demote it from its position of prominence.  The world was created as a world of falsehood, as a world bereft of truth.


            But the question then immediately arises, could this really be so?  Could the Almighty act against truth?


The ministering angels said before the Almighty: “Master of the worlds!  Why do You put to shame Your chief of court?”  The Almighty replied: “Let Truth rise from the ground!”  This is what is meant when it is written (Tehillim 85:12), “Truth shall grow from the ground.”


The ministering angels advance a compelling argument.  The Almighty could not create man by disgracing the attribute of truth, the insignia of the King.  Truth is not simply an important quality; it is the attribute that includes and forms the basis of every other attribute.  An attribute that is not true simply cannot exist.  Certainly, nothing can be created on the basis of falsehood!


            God responded, “Let Truth rise from the ground.”  I must confess that the classic commentaries to Midrash Rabba explain that the Almighty retracted His decision to cast Truth to the ground, and restored it to its place in the heavens.  God simply gave in and accepted the angels’ argument.  But this explanation is untenable, as it leaves the question of how, in the end, man was created.  The Midrash works off the assumption that the claim made by Truth – “He should not be created, because he is full of lies” – is irrefutable.  This passage concludes with the words, “Let Truth rise from the ground,” and obviously man was immediately created in the divine image.  If so, then what was God’s response to Truth’s argument that man should not come into existence?


            In my view, we should explain the Midrash’s conclusion based upon the verse it cites at the end of this episode: “Truth shall grow from the ground.”  God responded to the angels that casting truth to the ground is not a display of scorn, because “truth shall grow from the ground.”  The rise of truth from the ground does not reverse the initial decision to cast it to the ground.  The ministering angels thought that Truth must be complete and absolute, and exist in the heavens in all its purity without any contact with a deficient, flawed world.  The Almighty answers them that there is another kind of truth, a truth that grows from the ground, from out of falsehood.  Truth that grows from the ground not only does not prevent man’s creation, but constitutes the very purpose and goal of man’s creation.  The angels, in accordance with the role they so often play in the Midrash, express the simple, straight and logical view: falsehood and truth are inherently contradictory.  But God recognizes a much more complex reality, wherein there is a kind of truth that originates from falsehood, or at least from imperfection.  In other words, the Almighty seeks the value of process.  In the mathematics of the angels, something deficient is always worth less than something perfect.  But God created the world in order to achieve the value of progress toward perfection, in addition to the value in that which is perfect and absolute.  There is value in the fact that the human being, in his state of imperfection, progressively draws closer to absolute truth.  This value has no place in the world of the angels, the realm of objective truth that exists there at the highest level, but is static and frozen.  The creation of man, who, from the angels’ perspective of truth, is "completely deceitful," does not run in opposition to the truth that grows from the ground.  To the contrary, the deficient, flawed foundation is necessary for the achievement of this kind of truth.  Only the imperfect can form the basis of growth.


            The sensitive ear can hear the close association that exists between the attribute of truth and the attribute that precedes it – rav chesed.  The expression “rav chesed ve-emet” combines these two attributes together to some extent.[1]  In my opinion, we should refer to the attribute that follows rav chesed not as “emet,” but rather as “rav emet.”  In the expression, “rav chesed ve-emet,” the word “rav” modifies both attributes – chesed and emet.  The attribute of “rav emet” is precisely the Gemara’s inference from the verse, “Truth shall grow from the ground.”  Emet is an absolute, zealous and uncompromising attribute.  Rav emet, however, is the attribute of abundant truth, truth that increases, grows, that emerges, that from the outset has relative degrees of more or less.  The qualities of abundance and scarcity can be applied to this kind of truth, and this is precisely what lends it value and significance.  Truth is an attribute of strict justice, but rav emet is an attribute of chesed.  “Emet” is such a harsh attribute of justice that it not only sentences the sinner to annihilation, but also would prevent the possibility of man’s creation in the first place.  Rav emet, by contrast, is such a great attribute of kindness that it not only causes God to tilt the scales of the beinoni toward a favorable judgment, but also lends justification to the wicked, because it finds value even in the state of evil.


            This analysis leads us to a radical and frightening conclusion.  Since growth is possible only from a flawed basis, it emerges that the flaw itself has value.  Since there is no repentance without sin, and repentance is desirable not merely because it leads towards righteousness, but also because growth and progress is itself precious – and more so than the perfect result – sin itself has value, as it forms the necessary basis for repentance.  The falsehood within man, the condition of deficiency and imperfection, of being corrupted and flawed, is the ground from which truth grows.  The angels would say that it is preferable to preserve the unadulterated truth of the heavens, but the Almighty prefers truth that grows from falsehood over pure, absolute truth.


            The divine attributes of kindness include the attribute of rav emet, an attribute that affords value to heading in the direction of truth.  This attribute necessarily assigns merit even to the sin itself and lightens the sinner’s judgment, because sin constitutes a necessary component of growth and progression.  Of course, the purpose of this component is to be transcended and eliminated.  We do not value sin in order to embrace it, Heaven forbid, but rather so that we can eliminate it.  But in the end, when a person’s actions are weighed, the scale of guilt becomes lighter, even for the wicked, because their wickedness serves the purpose of truth – on condition, of course, that they ultimately repent.


            This is precisely the meaning of Rav Hutner’s analysis of rav emet.  He understood that the attribute of truth “imports” the value and worth of the future into the present.  If a certain present condition leads to a better future, then there is value even in the corrupted present, as it forms the basis for growth.  Even though from the perspective of absolute value, we would prefer for the present condition not to exist at all, from the viewpoint of the value of progression and process, there is value in beginning from a state of imperfection in order to reach the point of repentance in the future.  The final, future value lends value even to the presently flawed state, for the future is not only the negation of the present, but the goal of one’s progression from the present, and the future is thus situated even within the present, as the ultimate goal of progress.  God is rav emet; He recognizes the value that can grow from a flawed state, more than He values the state of perfection itself.

            This point is a most critical one.  Without absolute truth, there is no value in a truth that grows.  The process is meaningful only because its aim and destiny is the absolute state.  The French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre understood the value of movement and progress, but because his world did not include God, his inevitable conclusion was that movement is the primary component, regardless of the direction taken.  In his view, it is important for a person to commit and obligate himself to something, but objectively, the world is basically absurd.  In our worldview, of course, there is good and there is evil, and choosing evil is evil.  The value of bechira and of the progression through teshuva lies in the fact that the road toward perfection also possesses the value of perfection.  Therefore, rav emet is based upon emet.  The guaranteed eventuality of teshuva is what grants kindness to the imperfect human being in the present.  Truth begins in the heavens, and is cast down to the ground in order that it can once again rise.  The truth that grows is that same truth that opposed the creation of man, and was cast down to the ground in order to then rise again.  The value of growth thus lies in the fact that truth makes it way back toward its initial position.


            There is a world of truth.  It is found in the future, or in the heavens, in the realm of the ideal, but it certainly exists.  There is a world of bechira chofshit, and that world is one of imperfection – “complete deception.”  The world of free will depends upon the world of truth, and the combination of the two is the truth of the Almighty, who created the world of bechira so that it can grow back and reach toward the world of truth.


            We must take note of the implications of this attribute.  God did not create man a tzadik.  He created man with free will, which means that He created man imperfect.  He created man with the ability to sin.  The Almighty does not want a righteous person, but rather a person who chooses to be righteous despite the fact that he is not yet righteous.  It thus emerges that the not-righteous person – the sinner – is desirable in God’s eyes; he is desirable so that he can progress, but he is desirable nonetheless.  Ultimately, truth and significance in God’s eyes draw part of their essence from deficiency and sin.


            In many machzorim, there is a prayer recited before Kol Nidre called "the Great Vidui of R. Yona."  This prayer contains one sentence which, if not for the authority of Rabbenu Yona, would seem almost like a joke.  The worshipper repents and begs for compassion, and he declares, “You should know, Hashem my God, that had I not sinned, I would have been unable to repent.”  This sounds like a thief who attempts to justify his crime as he returns the goods by saying, “You should know that had I not stolen, I would not have been able to perform the mitzva of returning stolen goods.”  Needless to say, this should not be understood as a recommendation to sin in order to facilitate repentance.  However, as we have seen, after the fact we may look upon sin from a certain angle that lends it value.  If you indeed repented, then it turns out that even the sin played a positive role.

            Clearly, this attribute cannot atone for sin; it can only tolerate sin and offer temporary support.  After the previous attributes have been invoked, when the individual is not a beinoni, but rather a rasha (evil person), and there is nothing in his present condition that has value from the usual perspective, then the perspective that takes the future into account can exonerate him.  Without this future, he clearly has no basis for leniency.  The eventuality of repentance is critical in order to justify the ongoing existence of the sinner and the sin.  But once we’ve introduced that future, the entire present changes, from the perspective of He who is rav chesed ve-emet.  Until now, the previous attributes tried to justify the person by focusing on the side of him that is good.  His merits succeeded in tilting the scale.  Now, this attribute introduces a new, remarkable concept: the side of evil, the side of guilt, can itself serve as a merit.  The merits do not outweigh the demerits; rather, the demerits outweigh themselves.  If the sins serve as the basis for improvement, then they, too, may be considered as merits.


            The next attribute is “notzer chesed la-alafim” (“preserves kindness for thousands”).  We will address the precise meaning of the term notzer and try to determine to which form of kindness it relates.  It is worthwhile to study the two interpretations offered by the Rambam to this attribute in his commentary to Parashat Ki-Tisa.


[1] As we mentioned at the outset, this is precisely the reason why some commentators viewed rav chesed ve-emet as a single attribute, or a complex attribute.