How can you tell if the information you’re presented with on a daily basis is true? I don’t mean “true” as in “your truth,” I mean “true” as in factual. In the past half-decade, one of the things that continues to divide us more and more is mistrust, which is only encouraged by social media and the popularization of the claim of “fake news.” We’re living in a strange time, when science is subjective and statistics can be manipulated and interpreted in whichever way makes our side appear to be right.
Instead of having productive debates over the merit of various ideas, we’re fed misinformation at such a rapid pace that even social media channels have had to fact check tweets and place warnings on posts that haven’t been proven or substantiated. What’s worse, when we hear false information about anyone or anything, we’re now forced to ask ourselves if the repercussions of speaking up are even worth the time and energy.
Speaking out to correct falsehoods and stop the spread of misinformation takes courage, and the obligation to do so goes back to the Torah in this week’s portion. This week we read Parshat Mishpatim, the middle section of text in Sefer Shemot, the Book of Exodus. The Israelites are on their way out of Egypt to Israel. They have begun to set up their own system of laws and rules, beginning last week with the Ten Commandments. This week, Parshat Mishpatim focuses on interpersonal laws with regard to business. The main idea of this section of text is that we have the obligation to treat each other in business and in relationships as complete, equal human beings.
As we learn in the laws we read in chapter 23, verse 1: “You must not carry false rumors; you shall not join hands with the guilty to act as a malicious witness.” There’s no ambiguity there. The language itself is almost as heavy as the burden of carrying falsehoods and lies. The Torah is clear in the instruction that when we hear something that is false, we have an obligation to correct, and bring the truth to light.
However, before you go around correcting everyone, which might make you right, but likely won’t win you any friends, the Torah also tells us that we are to fulfill this obligation with grace and compassion.
Lies only weigh us down. They weigh on our conscience, and their propagation can have weighty consequences. Parshat Mishpatim reminds us that the mitzvah of lightening someone’s load isn’t just about a physical burden. To be truly courageous and compassionate human beings, our job is to lift up the truth, and by doing so, lessen everyone’s burden just a little bit.