Emet–Truth: Emet as a Way of Being

Sources from essay by Rabbi Carol Glass, BCC, SD in The Mussar Torah Commentary

A fact is always the same. Once you learn it, you have it forever. But truth is different. Once you understand it, you are forever changed and "the truth" disappears. And because you are now someone else, you must learn it all over again.

-Lawrence Kushner, The Book of Words

As an aspiring rabbi trying to support my cousin Celeste (not her real name), I visited her in the family room of the Jewish funeral home where her twenty-six-year-old son had been eulogized only fourteen months before. This time, we gathered to honor and eulogize her beloved husband, who had died unexpectedly two days earlier. As the funeral director approached to pin on Celeste's k'riah ribbon, my cousin looked me straight in the eye and blurted out with bitter accusation, "Where's your God now? What's His truth in this moment?" I understood Celeste's veiled reference to Baruch Dayan ha-emet, or "Blessed is the Judge of truth," a phrase commonly repeated after putting on a mourner's ribbon; and I fell silent. I said nothing, not only in order to validate and provide space for Celeste's anger and pain, but even more because I was silenced by the question itself. I had no reasonable response.

At that time, I didn't yet understand that emet, most often translated as "truth," is not primarily about the correctness of one's vision of the world; nor is it the opposite of falsehood, nor that which can be substantiated with facts. Emet is a way of being in the world. It is as much an exercise of the heart as it is an exercise of the mind. Pure or absolute emet, however, is not humanly attainable; it is, as Rabbi Kushner puts it: "God's way of seeing the world."

-Rabbi Carol Glass

Middas ha'emes, truth-perception, requires the ability to perceive reality as it really is, and to live one's life based on that reality...Growth in middas ha'emes requires recognizing the illusions we may be holding onto, and discarding them.... The shedding of illusions is a lifelong struggle that, like all spiritual growth, requires one's courage to move beyond one's natural inclinations... and ultimately, to perceive the finite as thoroughly informed by the Infinite.

-Batya Gallant

This rather different interpretation of emet, which I embrace, requires us to hone our powers of observation and to listen to our hearts in addition to the "facts." It is based on the word's very composition. In Hebrew, the word emet is spelled alef-mem-tav, alef being the first letter of that alphabet, mem occupying the middle position, and tav bringing up the rear as the final letter. In short, emet embraces a "from A to Z" perspective. It encompasses the complete picture, the fullness of reality, The middah of emet asks us to assess, judge, inform, teach, speak, observe, listen, and incline all our thoughts and behavior toward acknowledgment of the fullness of life in all its complexity–as we see it and as others might see it.

-Rabbi Carol Glass

(ג) וְאֵ֖ת שְׁנֵ֣י בָנֶ֑יהָ אֲשֶׁ֨ר שֵׁ֤ם הָֽאֶחָד֙ גֵּֽרְשֹׁ֔ם כִּ֣י אָמַ֔ר גֵּ֣ר הָיִ֔יתִי בְּאֶ֖רֶץ נׇכְרִיָּֽה׃ (ד) וְשֵׁ֥ם הָאֶחָ֖ד אֱלִיעֶ֑זֶר כִּֽי־אֱלֹהֵ֤י אָבִי֙ בְּעֶזְרִ֔י וַיַּצִּלֵ֖נִי מֵחֶ֥רֶב פַּרְעֹֽה׃
(3) and her two sons—of whom one was named Gershom, that is to say, “I have been a stranger*stranger Heb. ger. in a foreign land”; (4) and the other was named Eliezer,*Eliezer Lit. “(My) God is help.” meaning, “The God of my father’s [house] was my help, delivering me from the sword of Pharaoh.”
(ח) וַיְסַפֵּ֤ר מֹשֶׁה֙ לְחֹ֣תְנ֔וֹ אֵת֩ כׇּל־אֲשֶׁ֨ר עָשָׂ֤ה יְהֹוָה֙ לְפַרְעֹ֣ה וּלְמִצְרַ֔יִם עַ֖ל אוֹדֹ֣ת יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל אֵ֤ת כׇּל־הַתְּלָאָה֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר מְצָאָ֣תַם בַּדֶּ֔רֶךְ וַיַּצִּלֵ֖ם יְהֹוָֽה׃ (ט) וַיִּ֣חַדְּ יִתְר֔וֹ עַ֚ל כׇּל־הַטּוֹבָ֔ה אֲשֶׁר־עָשָׂ֥ה יְהֹוָ֖ה לְיִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר הִצִּיל֖וֹ מִיַּ֥ד מִצְרָֽיִם׃
(8) Moses then recounted to his father-in-law everything that יהוה had done to Pharaoh and to the Egyptians for Israel’s sake, all the hardships that had befallen them on the way, and how יהוה had delivered them. (9) And Jethro rejoiced over all the kindness that יהוה had shown Israel when delivering them from the Egyptians.
(יג) לֹ֥֖א תִּֿרְצָ֖͏ֽח׃ {ס} לֹ֣֖א תִּֿנְאָ֑͏ֽף׃ {ס} לֹ֣֖א תִּֿגְנֹֽ֔ב׃ {ס} לֹֽא־תַעֲנֶ֥ה בְרֵעֲךָ֖ עֵ֥ד שָֽׁקֶר׃ {ס}
(13) You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

Truth Is

Truth is only discovered in the moment.

There is no truth that can be carried over

to the next moment, the next day, the next year.

Truth comes into the non-seeking mind fresh and alive.

It is not something you can carry with you, accumulate, or hold onto.

Truth leaps into view when the mind is quiet, not asserting itself.

You cannot contain or domesticate truth, for if you do, it dies instantly.

Truth prowls the unknown waiting for a gap in the mind's activity.

When that gap is there, the truth leaps out of the unknown into the known.

Instantly you comprehend it and sense its sacredness.

The timeless has broken through like a flash of lightning

and illuminated the moment with its presence.

Truth comes to an innocent mind as a blessing.

Truth is a holy thing because it liberates thought from itself and illumines the human heart from the inside out.


Questions to Ask

  • How do you feel when you hear a report about someone or something that leaves out vital details pertinent to your viewpoint regarding the same event or person?

  • When are you tempted to leave "the other side of the story" uninvestigated?

  • Can you recall learning new details about someone's life that turned your understanding of them from negative to positive? How was your negative judgment formed in the first place?

  • How has encountering a new truth changed you? Explain.