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“If a person will sin: if he accepted a demand for an oath, and he is a witness — either he saw or knew — if he does not testify, he shall bear his sin” Leviticus 5:1
The injunction in this week’s parashah not to withhold testimony from a court of law serves to underline the responsibility that Jewish law places on the witness to a crime in maintaining the strictest standards of justice. Yet the Torah understands that the obligations of a witness are complex and can be fraught with difficulty.
It is significant that there is no direct command in the Torah for an individual to come forward and testify; instead, we are given indirect instructions against bearing false witness (Exodus 20:13) and withholding evidence. The more circuitous expression seems to replicate the desire to avoid becoming entangled in the disputes of others: testifying can involve acute discomfort and embarrassment when the witness knows the accused and — in certain cases — the fear of revenge and reprisals.
Jewish law acknowledges these fears — through its language and also through its legal procedures. Indeed, Rambam states that if a claimant in a case maintains that the witnesses are afraid to give testimony against a powerful and aggressive defendant, the defendant himself is required to provide evidence to the contrary.
The complexity of the procedures involving the witness demonstrates the extent to which these hesitations and anxieties are recognised by the intricate processes of Jewish law; this in turn serves to reassure us that the demands made of us are part of a strict and fair system of justice.
The founder of Chasidic Judaism, Rabbi Yisroel Ba’al Shem Tov, or Besht (1698-1760), similarly acknowledges that the witness’s experience can be a challenging one. However, his interpretation of this verse extends beyond legal parameters. He reads the words “he is a witness” as offering a salutary lesson in self-awareness. “Your fellow is your mirror,” says the Besht: one who witnesses a wrongdoing should consider the possibility that he, too, might be guilty of a similar failing. While a witness has legal obligations to discharge, observing another’s misconduct can also be an encounter with his own imperfections. While we have a clear obligation to provide testimony when required, we also have a responsibility to correct in ourselves the faults we are witness to in others.