The time was early February 1981. The location was the Roosevelt Room in the West Wing of the White House, not far from the Cabinet Room. President Ronald Reagan asked William Casey, the newly-appointed Director of the CIA, what he considered was his primary role as head of that agency. Barbara Honegger, assistant to the Chief Domestic Policy Advisor to the President, was in attendance. She reported Casey’s response: “We’ll know our disinformation program is complete when everything the American public believes is false.”
If you’re like most people, your decision whether or not to accept this anecdote as factual will probably not reflect a careful and unbiased assessment of the available evidence. Rather, it will be based on your gut feeling, shaped by your perspective of the CIA and other government intelligent agencies whether in the USA, Israel or elsewhere. At one end of the spectrum, you might be thinking something like, “That makes no sense. Why would the head of a major government agency say that his agency’s mission was to spread disinformation among its own citizens? Whoever believes that nonsense probably also believes in all kinds of crazy conspiracy theories.” At the other end of the spectrum, you might be thinking, “Why wouldn’t I believe it? Have they ever told the truth?”
Trust in traditional media is at an all time low, and so alternative media abound. Someone says one thing; someone else says another thing. Even if we try to stay somewhat informed about what’s going on in the world, it can be very confusing. How can we possibly know what is factual and what is not? It is as the prophet wrote (Yeshayah 59:14-15): כִּי־כָשְׁלָה בָרְחוֹב אֱמֶת…וַתְּהִי הָאֱמֶת נֶעְדֶּרֶת (For truth has stumbled in the street…and truth is absent). Most of us approach the news (if we approach it at all) like someone at a buffet—“I’ll have a little of this and a little of that.” Whatever agrees with us, we accept; whatever doesn’t, we dismiss or ignore. That may not be particularly objective, but if we’re honest with ourselves, that’s what most of us do most of the time. To seek out the truth of a matter of which we have no direct knowledge is just too difficult and too time-consuming. Long gone from our public discourse are the lofty ideas described in John Henry Newman’s 1859 work The Idea of a University, “It [education] teaches him to see things as they are, to go right to the point, to disentangle a skein of thought, to detect what is sophistical and to discard what is irrelevant.” Rather, we live in a time perhaps best described by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, “The majority is always wrong; the minority is rarely right.”
If there ever was a time in human history when we need to recognize falsehood and acknowledge truth, it is undoubtedly now. However, we don’t pull the strings of global media. We do not grace the hallways and inner chambers of power and government. We are simple people with simple goals. What can we actually do? Aren’t we powerless to effect positive change?
Let us start by acknowledging one immutable truth (Michah 7:20): תִּתֵּן אֱמֶת לְיַעֲקֹב (You give truth to Yaakov). This is not a description of a one-time historical event at Mt. Sinai no matter how lofty that event was, but rather a statement describing an ongoing process in which Hashem reveals and shows the Jewish people truth. So we of all people should know truth and not be fooled by falsehood. But it is not always easy, as the Gemara teaches (Shabbat 104a): מַאי טַעְמָא שֶׁקֶר מְקָרְבָן מִילֵּיהּ אֱמֶת מְרַחֲקָא מִילֵּיהּ שִׁיקְרָא שְׁכִיחַ קוּשְׁטָא לָא שְׁכִיחַ וּמַאי טַעְמָא שִׁיקְרָא אַחֲדָא כַּרְעֵיהּ קָאֵי וֶאֱמֶת מְלַבַּן לַבּוֹנֵי קוּשְׁטָא קָאֵי שִׁיקְרָא לָא קָאֵי (Why are the letters in the word sheker [falsehood] adjacent to each other while the letters in emet [truth] far apart? It is because falsehood is found, i.e. it is common, whereas truth is not found. And why do all the letters of sheker stand on one foot whereas the letters for emet stand like bricks? It is because emet stands, i.e. endures, whereas sheker cannot stand). We could add a third question. Why are the letters in sheker not in order, whereas the letters in emet, even though they are far apart from each other to encompass the whole aleph-bet, are in order? For sheker to exist, the natural order of the world must be mixed up or put into confusion, whereas emet is in line with the natural order of the created world.
Assembling emet is not a simple process. One needs to find an aleph [א] over here and then a mem [מ] over there and then put them together in the right order with a tav [ת] found way over there on the other side of the world. Difficult as this process may be, once assembled, the resulting entity is stable and enduring. Sheker, on the other hand, is right in front of our faces. We don’t need to expend any effort to find it. It is ubiquitous and pervasive. But since it’s all mixed up and unstable, it will topple over. It’s inevitable. It’s just a matter of time. The only question is, when?
It is taught in a Mishnah (Eduyot 8:7): אָמַר רַבִּי יְהוֹשֻׁעַ מְקֻבָּל אֲנִי מֵרַבָּן יוֹחָנָן בֶּן זַכַּאי שֶׁשָּׁמַע מֵרַבּוֹ וְרַבּוֹ מֵרַבּוֹ הֲלָכָה לְמשֶׁה מִסִּינַי שֶׁאֵין אֵלִיָּהוּ בָא לְטַמֵּא וּלְטַהֵר לְרַחֵק וּלְקָרֵב אֶלָּא לְרַחֵק הַמְקֹרָבִין בִּזְרוֹעַ וּלְקָרֵב הַמְרֻחָקִין בִּזְרוֹעַ (R’ Yehoshua said, I received a tradition from Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, who heard it from his teacher, and his teacher from his teacher, a halachah of Moshe from Sinai, that Eliyahu does not come to declare impure or pure, or to distance or bring near, rather to distance that which was brought near through force and to bring near that which was distanced through force). As explained by R’ Nachman (Likutei Moharan 117): וְזֶה לְרַחֵק הַמְקֹרָבִין וּלְקָרֵב הַמְרֻחָקִין הַיְנוּ לְרַחֵק הַשֶּׁקֶר וּלְקָרֵב הָאֱמֶת כִּי אָמְרוּ רַבּוֹתֵינוּ זִכְרוֹנָם לִבְרָכָה שֶׁקֶר מְקָרְבִין מִלֵּהּ וֶאֱמֶת מְרַחֲקִין מִלֵּהּ (And this, to distance that which was brought near and to bring near that which was distanced, means to distance the sheker and to bring near the emet, as our Sages, may their memory be for a blessing, said [Shabbat 104a], The letters of the word sheker are close together, and the letters of the word emet are far apart).
But what’s the meaning of sheker having been brought near through force? It means that sheker masquerading as emet has been forced upon us without our knowledge, typically by nefarious individuals or organizations to serve private or hidden agendas. And what is the meaning of emet being distanced through force? It means that emet has being forcibly pushed off into a corner (when it does not serve those same agendas), well out of the consciousness of the average citizen. This tactic is utilized when it becomes difficult to refute emet with any kind of reasonable argument and evidence—at which point, it is typically ignored, belittled or buried.
To illustrate what we have just stated, we shall briefly mention two examples. For an example of sheker being brought near, consider the so-called Gulf of Tonkin incident of August 4, 1964 which President Lyndon B. Johnson seized upon to pressure Congress to pass a resolution giving the US government carte blanche approval to engage more directly in the Vietnam War. Johnson went on national television to inform the American people that he had ordered an escalation of American involvement against North Vietnam due to a coordinated attack by North Vietnamese torpedo boats against two US destroyers. The only problem was that the alleged attack never took place—a total fabrication which led to nearly 10 years of American involvement in the Vietnam War with more than 3 million Vietnamese and 58,000 American soldiers killed. For an example of emet being sidelined, consider the way traditional media has treated the stunning revelations of Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Seymour Hersh after he laid out in detail the masterminding and bombing of Russian’s Nord Stream natural gas pipelines on September 26, 2022—they have remained silent, doing their best to ignore his reports.
It is written (Mishlei 12:19): שְׂפַת־אֱמֶת תִּכּוֹן לָעַד וְעַד־אַרְגִּיעָה לְשׁוֹן שָׁקֶר (The lip of emet will be established forever, but the lip of sheker for a moment [argi’ah]). On the surface, this means that from the moment sheker is spoken it appears as emet to many; however, after a while, given enough time, it becomes clear that it was, in fact, sheker. But if we look at this verse more closely, we notice something a little odd, as the Zohar ha-Kadosh brings out (Ki Tisa 188a): וְעַד אַרְגִּיעָה וְעַד רֶגַע מִבָּעֵי לֵיהּ מַאי אַרְגִּיעָה אֶלָּא עַד כַּמָה יְהֵא קִיוּמָא דִּלְהוֹן בְּעָלְמָא עַד זִמְנָא דְּיֵיתֵי (Ad argi’ah? It should say ad rega, i.e. for a moment. What is the meaning of argi’ah? Rather, when will these things, i.e. the oneness of Hashem and the global influence of the Jewish people’s voice (that were mentioned just prior to this passage in the Zohar), be established in the world? When he, i.e. Mashiach, comes). In other words, if the meaning of this verse is merely to teach that the lip of sheker will only endure for a moment, then the verse should have used the normal word for ‘moment’, i.e. rega, not the unusual word argi’ah. What’s the secret behind this unexpected word? The word ארגעה [argi’ah] is not based on the word רגע [rega], meaning moment, but on the word מרגוע [margo’ah] meaning repose, calmness or rest. It’s not that sheker will last only for a moment, but rather that sheker will cease its influence in this world only when true rest—Shabbat menuchah, world peace—replaces the cultures of this world.
Yes, we live in a world of sheker, but the age of Mashiach is coming, and it is a world of emet. As the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel, R’ Avraham Yitzchak Kook, famously said, “Before the world of truth can come, the world of lies must disappear.” But how does the world of sheker disappear? By force of arms, protests in the streets, threats of violence and riots? No, these things just continue the rulership of sheker. Sheker will disappear on its own and emet will come out of exile when we habituate ourselves to speak only emet, as we say each morning: לְעוֹלָם יְהֵא אָדָם יְרֵא שָׁמַיִם בַּסֵּתֶר וּבַגָּלוּי וּמוֹדֶה עַל הָאֱמֶת וְדוֹבֵר אֱמֶת בִּלְבָבוֹ (A person should always be in fear of Heaven, privately as well as openly, and he should acknowledge emet and speak emet in his heart). Just reciting this prayer isn’t sufficient; we have to do it. We must speak only emet and be honest and truthful to ourselves, even when it means facing those things about ourselves that we’d rather just ignore.
We often see the principle of middah k’neged middah as our nemesis, but this is incorrect. It is really our ally, and we can use it to cause positive change in the world. If we really yearn to hear only emet from others—and that includes from our governments and from government-controlled sources of disinformation— then we need to speak only emet to others and to ourselves. This is the meaning of R’ Nachman’s teaching in Likutei Eitzot (Emet v’Emunah 25-26): הָאֱמֶת הוּא אֶחָד וְהַשֶּׁקֶר הוּא הַרְבֵּה…תִּשְׁמֹר אֶת עַצְמְךָ מִשֶּׁקֶר וּתְדַבֵּר רַק אֱמֶת וְתִהְיֶה אִישׁ אֱמֶת לַאֲמִתּוֹ וְעַל־יְדֵי זֶה תִּהְיֶה נִכְלָל בְּאֶחָד כַּנַּ”ל כִּי אֱמֶת הוּא אֶחָד (There is only one emet but a multitude of sheker…Guard yourself from sheker and speak only emet, and you’ll truly become a man of emet, and through this you will be included in the ‘One’ because emet is ‘one’).
The good news is that the world of sheker is collapsing before our very eyes. If we strengthen our resolve now to speak only emet, this momentum will only accelerate. As David ha-Melech said (Tehillim 117:2): וֶאֱמֶת־יְָי לְעוֹלָם (And Hashem’s emet is eternal).