In any case, she is my sister; she is the daughter of my father, but
the daughter of my mother, and she became my wife.
When Avraham first encountered Avimelech (in Bereshith 20:2), danger to
his life prevented Avraham from revealing that Sarah was his wife. Now,
when confronted by Avimelech, Avraham explains that he had deviated from
the truth as little as possible, for technically, Sarah was his sister
(1). Nevertheless, his words beg elucidation. When he had said that Sarah
was his sister he certainly created the impression that she was not his
wife. The fact that she was technically his sister might seem irrelevant
if not for the halachah that one should try to make sure that one’s words
are as close to the technical truth as possible. If it is possible to make
peace without deviating from the facts, one must do so even when it
requires tremendous effort (2). This is understandable: if one is able to
avoid falsehood completely, certainly one should follow that path.
However, if one is in a situation in which deviating from the facts is the
only option, it is best to make a statement which is misleading but
technically true. In certain situations it is better to forego technical
truth and opt for a higher truth, such as protecting your life or peace
between husband and wife.
When the Torah prohibits lying, it employs the phraseology, “Distance
yourself from sheker (3).” Distancing oneself implies that even when one
is permitted to deviate from the facts one must stay as far away from
sheker as possible. In this vein, Targum Onkelos translates this verse
as, “From a word of sheker be distant.” This implies that even if one
cannot make a statement which is one hundred percent true, one must at
least make sure that all of the words are technically true. In other
words, there should be some way in which it is possible to demonstrate
that your words are consistent with what really happened. Distance from
falsehood must be a high priority.
Many authorities opine that it is never permitted to say something which
is a total deviation, and that there must be some true connotation
associated with what you say (4). Yaakov exemplifies this course of
action. Although prophetic instruction forced him to say that he was Esav,
he made sure there was a truthful connotation to his words (5). Another
way to distance oneself from falsehood is by not deviating from factual
integrity on a regular basis, for this will accustom a person to lying.
We must remember that even when one is permitted to deviate from factual
integrity, one must still distance themselves from falsehood and stay as
close to the truth as possible.