False Witness

Public statements are amplified as they echo through the Internet, as we tweet, post, or share. Among all such declarations, Torah gives sworn oaths special consideration and false oaths are the most heinous.  Today’s news is filled with false statements made under oath.

We complain about those who make such imprecations. But what is our obligation regarding such declarations? The culpability for vows extends not only to those who speak them but also to those who fail to testify against false oaths.

The book of Leviticus, parshat Vayikra, opens with a series of instructions about the offerings brought to the priests.  Among those listed are a variety of sin offerings.  With the range of possible sins to be atoned almost beyond numbering, Torah offers just a select few examples, highlighting the obligation to speak up against false oaths. 

וְנֶ֣פֶשׁ כִּֽי־תֶחֱטָ֗א וְשָֽׁמְעָה֙ ק֣וֹל אָלָ֔ה וְה֣וּא עֵ֔ד א֥וֹ רָאָ֖ה א֣וֹ יָדָ֑ע אִם־ל֥וֹא יַגִּ֖יד וְנָשָׂ֥א עֲוֺנֽוֹ׃

“If a person incurs guilt— When he has heard a publicly stated false oath and—although able to testify as one who has either seen or learned of the matter—he does not give information, so that he is subject to punishment; . . .”

The guilt is not in hearing the malediction. The guilt is in a refusal to bear witness as one who has seen or learned of the matter. 

Torah could have offered up murder, robbery, or revenge as sins requiring an offering. Instead, the example is the failure to testify as to a public imprecation.  Obviously the failure to be a witness against one who has blasphemed or cursed is of great concern. 

I suspect that Torah is not demanding that we all become informers, like a cold war era communist apartment block in Eastern Europe. Rather, Torah is likely urging us to be guardians of justice and defend faithfulness to moral principles. 

As I read this verse of Torah I think we are all witness to false oaths of grave consequence made before courts, Congress and the American people. We can retreat to the comfort of our homes with our iPhones and iPads, cloistered as we rail against immoral government officials.  Torah asks this.  Are we equally immoral if we fail to call out the false oaths of public officials? When do we take our disgust from the sofa to the streets, from our couches to the courts? What do you think parshat Vayikra urges you to do?  

 Rabbi Evan J. Krame