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Dual Meanings

By Rabbi Daniel Travis

An immigrant and a resident I am with you. (Bereshith 23:4)

If Avraham merely meant to describe his own status, he should have simply said, “I am an immigrant and a resident.” The righteousness weigh every word carefully, and the nuances of even the slightest departure from normal speech patterns must be explained. This is especially true of Avraham, who was one of the most powerful orators of his generation, as evinced by the vast number of people he influenced. If so, why did Avraham phrase his statement in such an awkward fashion?

In truth, the land actually belonged to Avraham, for God had promised it to him. Therefore it was Avraham who had the rights of residence there, not the Hittites, to whom he was speaking. Nevertheless he chose not to intimidate them, and he was permitted to tell them that they were the rightful residents, for the sake of peace. Avraham expressed himself to the people in an ambiguous way. He said, “An immigrant and a resident I am with you,” which could have been interpreted either that they were the residents and he the immigrant, or that they were the immigrants and he the resident. Even in a situation in which one is allowed to deviate from the truth, one should try to stay as close to the truth as possible (1).

Staying as close to the truth as one can is always the best policy. Even if one is allowed to deviate from factual integrity, one should consider first whether there is any way to deal with the situation completely truthfully. One who is careful always to be honest and to remain distant from falsehood will find that he will not be forced to lie (2). In difficult situations, when stating the factual truth is impossible, he will be able to find a way to keep quiet, or will find something to say that could be interpreted as the truth.

Once when Rav Elyah Lopian was visiting a poor family, the host offered him something to eat. Rav Elyah would not accept the offer, for the Rambam writes that if someone is lacking the means to provide for himself and those who depend on him, it is considered theft to eat from his table (3). Rav Elyah faced a dilemma, since if he refused outright, his host would be insulted, so he told his host that his doctor forbid him to eat that type of food. Later, his students asked him whether it was true that his doctor had forbidden him to eat such food. Rav Elyah replied that the Rambam, who was an excellent doctor, wrote that it is forbidden to take food from someone who does not have enough for himself, so indeed he had spoken the truth (4). In this situation, although Rav Elyah was allowed to deviate from the facts in order to avoid transgressing the halachah, since he was a man of truth, he found something to say which was not inconsistent with the factual truth (5).

1. Ohel Yaakov. A halachic authority should always be consulted.
2. Sefer Chasidim 1061.
3. Laws of Repentance 4:4.
4. MiDevar Sheker Tirchak, p. 100.
5. Kaf HaChayim 565:36, and Shulchan Gavohah, Orach Chaim 565.

Text Copyright © 2007 by Rabbi Daniel Travis and



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