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Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Where will flattery really get you?

Daf Yomi Sotah 41


Recently, I was talking to a new congregant.  Stephen and his wife moved to Edmonton a few months ago for her residency.  The move hasn’t been easy for Stephen; he left a good job in government and now can’t seem to find anything in his field.  In the meantime, he is unhappily doing construction work. 
“What’s your educational background?” I asked him.
“I have a Masters in Political Science,” he replied.  At that point, my ears perked up a little.  Here was some common ground; I too have a Masters in PoliSci. 
“What did you write your thesis on?” I inquired.
“European migration patterns,” he responded.
“That’s incredible!” I exclaimed, “Your topic is the hottest issue on the planet at the moment.  Start blogging about the refugee crisis and I am sure someone will notice you in no time!”
“But it’s been many years since I wrote my thesis,” Steve said to me, “I can’t really comment on what’s going on today!”
“Of course you can,” I replied. “You just need to read and read and become a real expert on the issues.  Then you start writing opinion pieces and make sure to let people know that you have an M.A. specializing in European migrants!  In 2015, your degree is golden!”
Stephen left the table feeling awesome.  The Rabbanit turns to me and says, “Wow, you really have an uncanny ability to discover everyone’s hidden talents and bring out the best in them!”

Mishnah: How did the king’s septennial Torah reading happen?  On the night following the first night of Sukkos, in the eighth year, i.e. at the conclusion of the sabbatical year, they would make him a wooden platform in the Temple courtyard.  He would sit upon it and read from the Torah.  King Agrippa arose and accepted the Torah and read from it while standing, for which the Sages praised him.
Rashi explains: Agrippa was an Israelite king, a descendant of Herod.
When he reached the verse, “You shall not place upon you a foreign person (as king),” his eyes filled with tears.
Rashi explains: For the verse invalidated him from the monarchy.
The Sages said to him, “Fear not, Agrippa, you are our brother, you are our brother!”
Gemara: It was taught in the name of Rabbi Nasan: At that moment the enemies of Israel (a euphemism for Israel) were sentenced to destruction, for they fawned Agrippa.
Rabbi Shimon ben Chalafta taught: From that day, when obsequiousness got the upper hand, justice was perverted, behaviour was corrupted, and no longer could a person truly say to his friend, ‘my behaviour is better than yours.’
Rabbi Elazar taught: Any person who flatters falsely goes to Gehinnom.

This world is a ‘world of falsehood.’  Our job is to strive to bring truth and clarity to all the darkness.   Fawning – when you praise a person dishonestly – is a type of falsehood that must be avoided.  While the Sages no doubt just wanted to make King Agrippa feel better about himself, they had no excuse to be sycophantic.  Truth must prevail.

But we know that in Judaism, lying is permissible in certain situations!  For example, Aharon Hakohen, the first Kohen Gadol, was known for his peacemaking skills.  He would bring shalom between husbands and wives, as well as between feuding friends.  How did he do it?  He would tell each of the parties to the marriage that the other one had told him that they wanted to make up.  They just felt awkward and didn’t know how to begin the conversation.  Thus, he would bring them both to the table – under false pretences – and save the marriage.  So lying may be permissible sometimes!  What then was the problem with the response of the Sages to King Agrippa?

In Pirkei Avot, Ben Azzai teaches, “Do not be disrespectful of any person for there is no person who does not have his hour.”  Every individual has unique qualities and a unique mission on Earth.  If we are dismissive of anyone, we are failing in our obligation to discover their unique contribution to the Divine plan.  Everyone must be respected because each person has something unique to offer to the world that nobody else has.

False flattery is a cop out.   Instead of telling King Agrippa that it was okay for him to be the king – when the Torah clearly states that it is problematic – the Sages should have found other ways to console and extol him.  They could have said to him, 'Your majesty, amongst our people there is no one with the vision to lead us like you!  Your majesty, many Davidic kings treated their subjects poorly.  You are a shining beacon of gracious rule!’  Those statements would have been absolutely true and acceptable.  False flattery was completely uncalled for.

Instead of falsely flattering people, take the time to truly appreciate them.  Each person is a beautiful reflection of the Divine with unique gifts and abilities.  Once you discover those gifts, you will have no need to caress their ego with obsequious praises.  You will have more than enough real reasons to praise who they truly are!


Every individual in this world is incredibly talented.  Your job is to get to know people well enough to discover who they are and why they are here.  May you have the patience to truly get to know the people you meet and may you never need to resort to false flattery!