Speaking Truth to Power…Really?

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We hear a lot
these days about ‘speaking truth to power,’ i.e. a phrase connoting the necessity
for people to stand up for what they believe is right or needed and to tell
people who are perceived as being ‘in charge’ what’s what, whether the powers
that be want to hear such truth or not. By those who espouse it, ‘speaking
truth to power’ is considered an act of heroism, bravery or even self-sacrifice,
certainly a quality to be applauded. Of course, not all people of distinction
favor ‘speaking truth to power.’ For example, the well known leftist ideologue Noam
Chomsky is dismissive of it saying that “power knows the truth already, and is
busy concealing it.” To him, the oppressed are the ones who need to hear the
truth, not the oppressors.

Be that as it
may, the history of ‘speaking truth to power’ goes back to at least ancient
Greece. They even had a word for it—parrhesia, to speak candidly or to
ask forgiveness for so speaking. It had both a negative and a positive
connotation. Famous historical personalities who exemplified this axiom could
include the anti-colonialist leader Mahatma Gandhi, German pastor and staunch
opponent of the Nazi regime Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Soviet dissident and acclaimed
novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn, American civil rights leader Martin Luther
King Jr., South African political revolutionary Nelson Mandela or even the
Pakistani activist for women’s rights, Malala Yousafzai (who became the world’s
youngest Nobel Prize laureate at age 17). We could go on and list many, many
more examples of people who lived and gave their lives for being willing to “speak
truth to power.” And it is obvious to anyone who honestly looks at history that
we may effect change (for better or for worse), in the short term at least, through
this tactic. However, that is not our purpose here. Instead, we want to develop
this subject in a slightly different direction.

To whom
should truth be spoken? To those in power or to those oppressed by that power? As
in many areas of life, we may miss the mark if we see the world through a
dichotomous lens, i.e. this or that. Could there, in fact, be another category,
perhaps even more relevant than either the rulers or the ruled?

Every day, we recite two deeply profound
verses back to back in the Uva l’Tzion prayer. The first one is from
Tehillim 119:142: צִדְקָתְךָ צֶדֶק לְעוֹלָם וְתוֹרָתְךָ
אֱמֶת (Your righteousness is
always righteous and your Torah is truth). And the second one is from Michah
אֱמֶת לְיַעֲקֹב חֶסֶד לְאַבְרָהָם אֲשֶׁר־נִשְׁבַּעְתָּ לַאֲבֹתֵינוּ מִימֵי
קֶדֶם (Give truth to Yaakov, chesed to Avraham, which You swore to
our fathers from the days of old). Putting these two ideas together, we are
praying that Hashem would continue to give the Torah of truth to the Jewish
People, as the descendants of the Patriarchs. This is not a statement of
thanksgiving for a historical fact; it is a prayer for a present and constant
reality, because without the constant flow of Torah from Heaven, the world
would cease to exist.

Most of us are very familiar
with the notion that Avraham exemplified chesed, i.e. loving-kindness, a
generous and giving spirit, charity to others, etc. But how many of us have it
firmly in our consciousness that Yaakov exemplified truth? But truth is not some
sort of personalized autograph, self-identity or emotional feeling. It is the
Torah and it encompasses all of reality, for with it Hashem created all the
worlds, above and below, inner and outer. Truth is highly objective while at
the same time being deeply subjective. But how can that be? It seems like a
contradiction, but it isn’t. It only appears that way because we may still be
locked into a “this or that” way of thinking. Truth must be as subjective as it
is objective because it encompasses not only everything external, but also
everything internal, everything above and everything below, and that includes
all of our levels of consciousness.

But what actually is Torah? What
is truth? Truth is the unity of right and left, the consonance of expansion and
contraction, the combination of black and white, the blending of silence and
sound. On a kabbalistic level, it is the merging of gevurah
(self-restraint, Yitchak) with chesed (giving to others, Avraham). Truth
is beauty; it is harmony (tiferet). It is a symphony, not a tune. It is
a painting, not a stroke of a pen. It is a sonnet, not a couplet. And this is
what Hashem gave to Yaakov and to his descendants as an eternal inheritance.
And this is what we must embrace. It is both not simple and simple at the same
time. Or we could say it another way: it is very complex while not being
complex at all. No matter how we want to look at it, truth is not common
and is frequently counterintuitive. (A classic example of Yaakov exemplifying
truth is that upon his return to Eretz Yisrael when he generously gives gifts [act
of chesed] while simultaneously bowing down [act of gevurah] to
his wicked brother, Esav.)

That being said, what does this
have to do with the topic at hand, ‘speaking truth to power,’ and our question:
to whom should truth be spoken? Who is the most important individual to whom we
should speak the truth?

Every morning we recite the
following prayer: לְעוֹלָם יְהֵא אָדָם יְרֵא שָׁמַיִם
בְּסֵתֶר וּבַגָּלוּי וּמוֹדֶה עַל־הָאֱמֶת וְדוֹבֵר אֱמֶת בִּלְבָבוֹ (A man must always fear Heaven privately
and out in the open, and acknowledge the truth, and speak the truth in his
heart). This is the central point. And now, let’s relate this to ourselves in
order to make it personal: I am the individual to whom I must speak the truth,
and the truth must penetrate my own heart. To be honest, brutally honest with
myself, with what I think about, with what I look at, with my cravings and
desires, with my thoughts about other people, what I fear and worry about, etc.—in
a nutshell, with what I am deep down, the bare truth, no-holds-barred
truth, and no excuses. And that is a life’s work. And it is simple and not
simple both at the same time.

But how do we do this? The fact
is that we can’t hear a quiet inner voice when a thousand external voices are
raging outside. Therefore, the first step is to turn off the external voices:
turn off the television, the radio and the music, close the book, and turn off
the lecture…turn them all off. Slow down and listen to the silence. And if you
can’t find a quiet place (because your world has become impossibly noisy), then
wake yourself up in the middle of the night and go sit in a chair, alone, for
ten or fifteen minutes. You may be startled at first, but in time you won’t be
able to live through another day without this quiet time. And just talk. Talk
to yourself and talk to God. Have a conversation. And if you don’t know what to
say, just whisper ‘Thanks.’ In time, ask yourself questions. If you search, you
will find yourself and you will begin to fulfill what it means to speak truth in
your own heart.

By speaking the truth to
ourselves, we cause the most important positive changes in the world—changes in
ourselves, to make ourselves better—better husbands, better wives, better sons,
better daughters, better employers, better employees, better…you fill in the
word that is most relevant to you. Trying to change others by ‘speaking truth
to power’ is a waste of effort, a cop out, a distraction of the real work that
must be done, which is the work on ourselves. This is the real meaning of Chazal’s
teaching in Sanhedrin 37a: כל אחד ואחד חייב לומר בשבילי
נברא העולם (Everyone must say,
‘The world was created for my sake’), not to boast about it and not to try to
beat other people over the head with one’s version of the truth to satisfy
one’s personal or political agendas, etc., but rather to fix oneself, to fill
in one’s deficiencies with substance and to take responsibility for oneself
instead of assigning blame.

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