Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann
Truth and a Place Called Kushta
Tzedek, tzedek tirdof - Righteousness,
righteousness you shall pursue. (16:20)
How does one pursue tzedek/righteousness? Rashi sees this as a
command to pursue civil justice - "Seek reliable civil courts [for your
litigation]." Targum Onkelos has an unusual understanding of this
pasuk (verse); he sees it as a call for honesty and integrity: "Kushta,
kushta tirdof - Truthfulness, truthfulness you shall pursue."
Making use of the Targum's explanation, the continuation of the
pasuk connects beautifully to its beginning. The Talmud (Sanhedrin
97a) tells the following story:
Rava said: At first I thought there was no truth in this
world. [Then] a certain Torah scholar (some say his
name was Rav Tavus, some say his name was Rav
Tavyumi) told me that even were he given all the riches
of the world, he would never lie. [He then told me the
following story:] Once I came to a certain place, which
was called Kushta (Truth), where the people never lied,
and no one ever died young. I married a women from
Kushta, and bore from her two children.
One day, when my wife was washing herself, a
neighbour came knocking on the door [looking for my
wife]. I thought, "It's not appropriate [to say what she's
doing]," so I told her, "She's not home." Both his children
died. The townspeople came to investigate. They said to
him: What happened? He told them. They said to him,
"With all due respect, please leave our city, and do not
bring [untimely] death upon us!"
Tzedek, tzedek tirdof - Truth, truth (Kushta) you shall pursue:
Lema'an tichyeh - That you may live!
The Torah's use of double wording (Tzedek, tzedek) for emphasis, as
well as its unusual instructions to pursue truth, give strength to
Onkelos' interpretation. In regards to lying and falsehood the Torah
warns: Mi-devar sheker tirchak - Distance yourself from words of
falsehood (Shemos 23:7). Judging from its choice of imperatives, it
is evident the Torah holds honesty and truthfulness in very high
Why is truthfulness and honesty so important? I once saw a
penetrating insight from the Chassidic giant R' Pinchus of Koritz
regarding this. It is told that R' Pinchus used to warn his disciples:
"Never fool yourselves! Above all a Jew must be thoroughly honest
Once one of his students challenged him. "But Rebbe," he said, "one
who fools himself actually thinks he is being honest with himself. So
how are we ever to know if we are being honest, or just fooling
"You have asked wisely, my son," the Rebbe said. "The answer,
however, is simple. It is written in Tanna d-Bei Eliyahu (an ancient
Midrashic source) that anyone who is careful to speak words of truth,
will be sent a malach (an angel) who shows him the truth. One who
speaks words of sheker (falsehood) will be sent a malach who fools
and deceives him. So, if you will be careful to always tell the truth,
you will never 'fool yourself'. If not, well..."
This is a very telling incident. One can live his/her entire life in
deception - of others and of himself, and not have even the faintest
notion he is doing do.
R' Pinchus also used to tell his disciples: "It is better to choke, than
to utter a lie." Taken out of context, this seems like a very strong
statement. If, however, the quality of one's life - his perception of
himself and of the world around him and of the truth - are directly
tied to his own level of honesty, then it begins to make sense. A life
spent deceiving oneself is a life hardly worth living. He was telling his
disciples: Rather be truthful and bear the consequences than be
deceitful and lose touch with life.
Perhaps, based on this, Rashi's interpretation that our pasuk deals
with the pursuit of competent batei din (civil courts) and Onkelos'
understanding that it deals with the pursuit of truth and honesty, are
related. No one is more in need of an unbiased and truthful view of
the world than the dayan (judge). Onkelos is telling us that the first
prerequisite to being a good dayan is being a man of honesty and
truth. Justice, justice you shall pursue. How? Truth, truth you shall
The quality of truth in our times is sorely in need of improvement.
Rabbi Peysach Krohn tells the story of the man who purchased a hat
in a Boro Park store. A few days later, he returned there to have his
initials stamped into the hat. The owner recognized him as the man
who had bought the had a few days earlier, and promptly gave him
five dollars. "I'm so glad you came back," he said. "After you bought
your hat, we received a notice from the supplier that we had been
quoted the wrong price, and the hats were actually cheaper than we
were first told. I had charged you based on the wrong price. The
actual price should have been five dollars less!" The man's joy at
being able to do the right and honest thing was tangible.
Rabbi Krohn was so excited by this rare display of truthfulness and
honesty that he immediately called Rabbi Noson Scherman, a close
friend of his, to tell him the story. Listening to the story, R' Scherman
responded insightfully, "Isn't it sad that we live in a generation for
which this is such a rare and beautiful story!"
By striving to be honest, truthful people, we will be blessed with the
rare quality of truthful insight. As we pray every day, "Give truth to
Yaakov (Michah 7:20)!" And do you know what? - It actually feels
good to throw all the deception and craftiness away and just be
Text Copyright © 1998 Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann and Project Genesis, Inc.