Vayikra: Witnessing and Justice

Copyright 2014 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayikra

 
If a person sins, as he has heard the declaration of a curse, and he is a witness by seeing or knowing, yet he does not testify, he shall bear his transgression . . .  (Vayikra/ Leviticus 5.1)
 
Good afternoon! 
 
We’re starting a new book of the Torah this week, the book of Vayikra, or Leviticus, so called as it has many, many rules for the priestly class (e.g., the Levites) and their offerings and sacrifices. Our opening portion also has some laws pertaining to various civil infractions; the opening verses of chapter 5 describe several scenarios of accidental, negligent or inadvertent transgression, such that a special sin-offering was required after the fact. 
 
The first verse of chapter 5, above, is hard to translate and there is much commentary on the matter, but the basic idea is that if somebody heard a public declaration- the “curse,” as above- that anybody who knew anything about such-and-such matter was to come forth and testify, if in that case one has relevant information and didn’t testify, it’s a sin and requires atonement in the priestly service. Most commentaries agree that this is about testimony by a third person who is neither plaintiff nor defendant, so it’s about coming forward to help with somebody else’s dispute rather than confessing one’s own crime or sin. 
 
Now, we might think that this is hardly a radical concept. In American law, there are various scenarios in which testimony can be compelled, perhaps even with the threat of contempt of court. What’s interesting to me, however, is that the duty to testify is not only a civic matter but a religious one. We have an affirmative obligation to be constructively involved in resolving conflicts and quarrels, despite the fact that such involvement may bring about discomfort, rebuke, and strained relationships. I remind readers that Judaism is not primarily concerned with rights- such as the right to be left alone or the right to stay silent- but obligations, in this case, the obligation to say what we know so that justice is done. 
 
To put it another way, when we speak the truth, despite the cost and thus help conflicts be resolved fairly, we are partners of the Holy One in bringing about peace and righteousness. Peace and justice are not just good ideas; they are the core of a Jewish spiritual consciousness. Peace and justice are inseparable; we may think we are “making peace” but withdrawing from the hard work of addressing conflicts, but over the long run, peace rests on justice, which requires the participation of every brave and willing soul. 
 
Shabbat Shalom, 
 
RNJL 
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