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Parashat Vayikra: Show and Tell

Excerpted from Rabbi Dr. Norman J. Lamm’s Derashot Ledorot: A Commentary for the Ages – Leviticus, co-published by OU Press and Maggid Books

Show and Tell*

One of the offenses for which the Torah, in this morning’s sidra, declares the sin offering obligatory is that of shevuat ha’edut, that is, one who is under oath to testify and fails to do so. If a man witnessed some significant matter, either seeing or knowing of some facts important to some other individual who asks him to testify, then, “im lo yagid,” if he withholds his testimony and refuses to testify, “venasa avono,” “he shall bear the burden of sin” (5:1).

To those many amongst us whose first reaction, upon witnessing an accident, is to escape the scene quickly so as not to be bothered by innumerable court appearances, the Torah addresses its reminder that offering up truthful testimony on behalf of another person is not only a legal obligation, but also a religious and ethical one. There are three types, the Talmud tells us (Pesaĥim 113b), whom God despises, and one of them is he who withholds testimony needed by another. The truth is destroyed not only by outright falsehood, but also by failing to report the true facts.

In a larger sense, the sin of “im lo yagid” refers not only to a trial currently in session in some courtroom, but to keeping your peace and remaining silent in the face of obvious injustice. To withhold testimony means to suppress your righteous indignation when by all standards of decency it should be expressed, and expressed vigorously. For even if there is no human court willing to hear the facts and correct an unjust situation, there is a Heavenly Judge before whom we are required to testify. He, therefore, who suppresses the truth and chooses silence in the presence of evil, shows his contempt for God, who is the King who “loves righteousness and justice” (Psalms 33:5). To a generation which lived through the Hitler era, and saw millions of Germans remain submissively silent while six million Jews were butchered, we need not stress the teaching of today’s sidra that “im lo yagid,” if one fails to cry out and bear witness, then “venasa avono,” that individual bears guilt and sin.

Need we look far for sufficiently compelling examples against which simple decency requires us to declare our protest? There is the perennial problem of man’s cruelty to man – and on scales both large and small. In all these cases, “im lo yagid,” if we fail to testify to our deeply held conviction that mankind is created in the image of God and hence sacred, we share in the guilt.

For instance: In the past year there were two cases, one of them only this past week, in which a prize-fighter was pummeled to death in front of large audiences who paid handsome prices to be permitted to be spectators to this act of  athletic homicide. Is it not about time that our country civilized itself and outlawed this public barbarism? Is it not stretching the point, to say the least, when the governor of this state defends this “sport” by calling it a “manly art”? Is it not a deep source of embarrassment to our country that the prize fighter who dealt the death blow came to this country from Cuba, given that in that country, ruled by tyrants and infested by Communists, boxing is outlawed?

Or more importantly: The Israeli government brought to the attention of the world this week the shocking news of West German scientists working in Cairo on developing “unconventional” weapons, including nuclear missiles. Dare the world keep silent and refrain from testifying to the sordid story of what German scientists once did to the Jewish people? The West German government recently showed, in the Der Spiegel case, that it can act decisively where its interests are concerned. It must do no less now. “Im lo yagid” – if the Western countries, ours included, suppress their protests, then “venasa avono,” they shall compound the guilt of two decades ago.

Most especially does this principle of “im lo yagid” apply to the Jew. Our very reason for being Jews is to testify to the glory of the Creator. Our essential function as the people of Torah is to bear witness to the truth of Torah in word and deed. In the words of Isaiah (43:21) at the beginning of today’s haftara, “I have created for Myself this people so that they might relay my praises”; or, with even greater cogency, the famous words later in the same haftara,ve’atem eidai,” “and you are My witnesses” (44:8). That means that every Jew must ever be self-conscious, must realize that we represent Torah, that everything that we do and say is an eidut, a testimony offered up on behalf of God and Torah. If a Jew acts shamefully, he disgraces his faith. If that individual acts meritoriously, that person brings credit upon Torah and its Giver. “Im lo yagid” – the Jew who, no matter how honorable his intentions, does not act with the dignity and respectability of a ben Torah, who fails to bear witness to the glory of Torah, “venasa avono,” bears the guilt of having failed the most important mission in life. To the Jew, all of life must be – to use the name of the schoolchildren’s game – “show and tell,” an opportunity to show by example and tell by words that Torah civilizes man and raises him to unprecedented heights of nobility.

Parents of young children, those who have the opportunity of seeing most directly the effect and influence of one generation upon another, know well the secret of eidut. Children are not nearly as impressed by expression as they are by example; they emulate rather than obey. Only if a parent bears living testimony to his convictions will it be meaningful to a child. That is why it is of no avail to send a child to shul or school. You must bring the child to shul and school. Otherwise the child may go through yeshiva, but the yeshiva will not go through the child. “Im lo yagid” – if parents do not, in practice, live the kind of lives they want their children to lead, then “venasa avono,” the children bear the burden of their parents’ guilt.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch has maintained that the word “eid,” “witness,” is related to the word “ode,” “yet” or “still.” To testify means to continue, to keep alive, to make permanent. To be the eidim for God means to keep alive faith in Him, to make the Torah ethic permanent, to continue the Jewish tradition into the future.

It is for this reason that we Orthodox Jews in particular ought to be so very concerned not only by the impression we make upon outsiders, but also how we appear to our fellow Jews who have become estranged from our sacred tradition. We have labored long and hard and diligently to secure an image of Orthodox Judaism which does not do violence to Western standards of culture and modernity. But at times the image becomes frayed, and another, less attractive identity is revealed. All too often of late we have been careless and coarse. Sometimes we have made it appear that we are barely emerging from the cocoon of medievalism. If we are to be witnesses to Torah, then Orthodox Jews must have a more impressive means of communicating with non-observant segments of our people. Saadia Gaon pointed out a thousand years ago that the best way to make a heretic, an apikores, is to present an argument for Judaism that is ludicrous and unbecoming. Orthodoxy cannot afford to have sloppy newspapers, second-rate schools, noisy synagogues, or unaesthetic and repelling services. When you testify for God and for Torah, every word must be counted – and polished!

It is highly significant, in this connection, that the Torah groups two other sins together with the one of “im lo yagid” as requiring one type of sacrifice for atonement. The other two, in addition to the sin of withholding testimony, are tumat hamikdash vekadashav, that of defiling the Sanctuary or other holy objects when we are in a state of impurity as a result of contact with a dead body, and shevu’at bituy, the violation of an oath. What is the relation between these three?

There is, I believe, an inner connection that is of tremendous significance. The person who violates “im lo yagid,” who suppresses the truth, especially one who fails to proclaim by example and expression the greatness of Torah and Torah life, is, as it were, acting as if all that individual believed in and all that individual represents were a corpse – a dead body of uninspired doctrines, irrelevant laws, and meaningless observances. The committed Jew, who, by acting cheaply or meanly, withholds testimony to the holiness of Torah, acts as if Torah were a dead letter insofar as it has no influence on character and conduct. By concealing this testimony that person has introduced an element of tuma, of deadly impurity, into the community. Furthermore, that person has also violated his shevua, for every Jew, by virtue of being born Jewish, is under prior oath to represent God, to stand for the Torah He gave at Sinai. We were commissioned to be a “segula,” a “treasure” of God (Deuteronomy 7:6), by being a “mamlekhet kohanim,” a “kingdom of priests” (Exodus 19:6), and that means, according to the Seforno, that we must directly and indirectly teach the entire world to call upon God and be faithful unto Him. Any Jew, therefore, who acts disgracefully, unethically, or irreligiously, misrepresents his mission, and violates his sacred oath.

It is for this reason that the Halakha was concerned not only with inner realities but also with outer appearances. A breakdown in our functioning as eidim means the introduction of tuma and the violation of shevua. It is for this reason, too, that the Halakha establishes a special and more taxing code of behavior upon the talmid ĥakham, the scholar – and, we may add, what is true for the scholar amongst laypeople is equally true for the observant or Orthodox Jew among the non-observant. That is why a Jew strongly identified with Torah must not accumulate bills but pay them at once; must not associate with unworthy people; must not be loud and abusive; must be respectful and courteous; must be scrupulously fair and ethical in business; and must be beloved and respected by all. When a Jew, especially a Torah Jew, or any Jew connected with a synagogue and especially an Orthodox synagogue, acts in conformity with this kind of code, that individual bears witness to the loftiness of Torah, to its divine origin, and demonstrates that Torah is a living reality, not a corpse which emanates tuma; that individual keeps the millennial oath, administered at Sinai, by which God is represented to the world. No wonder Maimonides, in codifying the special laws of which we have mentioned several examples, places them in his Laws of the Foundations of the Torah – for indeed, these are fundamental to the whole outlook of Torah.

Perhaps all that we have been saying is most succinctly summarized in two letters in the Torah. In the words “shema Yisrael, hear O Israel, Hashem Elokeinu, the Lord is our God, Hashem eĥad, the Lord is One” (Deuteronomy 6:4), the ayin of “shema” and the dalet of “eĥad” are written in the Torah larger than usual. These two letters spell “eid” – witness. For indeed, just as “im lo yagid venasa avono,” suppressing this testimony on behalf of Torah is sinful, so if we are eidim, and do testify to Him by our lives – that is the greatest tribute to the One God, Lord of Israel, and Creator of heaven and earth.

*March 30, 1963