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Home » Miscellaneous, Shoftim

Shoftim: Seeing Another’s Shame

Submitted by on July 31, 2012 – 10:44 pmNo Comment | 2,922 views

Two Witnesses

Torah law requires two witnesses to establish the truth of a crime. No sin is punishable on the testimony of a single witness, who can misinterpret what he saw and cause the sinner to be punished unjustly. The testimony of two witnesses can be corroborated by testing them against each other, allowing the truth to emerge.

Yet, the Torah takes this requirement to a radical degree when it rules that two witnesses, who observe a single event from two separate vantage points and can’t see each other from their respective vantage points, are treated as two separate witnesses and can’t be accepted as a single – two witness – unit. [1]

They both saw the same event and their testimonies corroborate each other, why should it matter that they couldn’t see each other from their respective vantage points when they observed the crime? If our only concern is establishing the truth their inability to see each other should be immaterial. Our only concern should be their ability to observe the crime. If their testimonies match, why is the criminal absolved of punishment? Is he not getting off on a technicality?

Mirror Image

Allow me to suggest that the explanation is based on the oft quoted teaching from the Baal Shem Tov that observing another in the commission of a sin is meant to serve as a mirror image of ourselves.

The idea behind this assertion is that G-d does not like to shame His children for no reason. If a person was going to commit a crime it is not right that he should be caught in the act by another unless it will benefit one of them. It can benefit the sinner if the other acts to testify in court and thus facilitate atonement for him or it can benefit the witness if it helps him acknowledge a truth about himself to which he was otherwise blind.

We are often unwilling to accept a shameful truth about ourselves when it is brought to our attention. We are much more prone to blame others or simply deny the truth when it reflects negatively on us, but when we observe something shameful in another we are quick to judge. G-d therefore allows us a glimpse of another’s sin and patiently waits until we pass judgment on that person. At that point G-d expects us to realize that the sin for which we judged another is one for which we are also guilty.

It might not be the same sin, but it can be along similar lines. Suppose you observed your neighbor stealing from another and passed judgment on him. Seeing another’s Shame - innerstreamYou might then realize that while you haven’t stolen anything, you borrowed from another without permission. It is a soft crime and one easily dismissed until you see a harsh example of it in another and rush to judgment. Only then do you realize that you too are guilty and take your own judgment to heart.

How are you meant to know whether you were shown a sin so you might learn something from it or so that you might benefit the sinner by acting as a witness? The answer is that it depends on whether you catch anyone else observing the sin. If you needed to observe the sin to learn a lesson for yourself, G-d wouldn’t need you to see who else needed to learn a similar lesson. If you both needed to observe the sin and learn your respective lessons G-d could have arranged for you to observe it from separate vantage points that allow you to see the sin, but not each other.

The very fact that you observed the sin alongside another tells you that your observation wasn’t intended to teach you a lesson. You were brought to this place to prevent the sin and failing that to offer testimony at the trial, which would result in the punishment of and atonement for the sinner.

Soul Connection

Not every soul can facilitate atonement for every sinner. It would make sense that to be the agent of another’s atonement, a soul connection must exist between you and the sinner. It is impossible for you to know with whom you share this special connection, but the fact that G-d brought two people to this place at this time tells them that they share a soulful kinship with the soul of the sinner and that they can serve as agents of his atonement.

Their first task is to work to prevent the sinner from committing the sin. Testimony is only accepted from witnesses who warned the sinner moments before the sin was committed that the act is sinful and that it carries a particular punishment.  Only if the witnesses issued the warning and the sinner acknowledged his understanding of the warning and proceeded to commit the sin, can their testimony be accepted in court.

This is not merely to determine that the sinner knew his act was sinful and committed it with intention to sin, but also to prevent the sin. If the witnesses share a soulful kinship with the sinner they ought to work to prevent his sin, not just to arrange his painful atonement.

Once they have failed to prevent the sin their next task is to testify in court. Helping to ensure that the sinner is punished facilitates atonement for his soul and ensures that he won’t be punished in the hereafter.

Not a Single Unit

Now that we understand the connection between the sinner and his witnesses we can clearly see why the testimony is not accepted, when they can’t see each other from their respective vantage points.

Their inability to see each other is a clear indication that they weren’t brought to this location for the joint purpose of  preventing the sin and failing that to facilitate atonement. If that were the case they would have seen each other from their respective vantage points.

The fact that they couldn’t see each other tells us that they weren’t there for joint purpose. They were each brought for their own reason, to learn their own lesson about their own lives, and they didn’t see each other to prevent them from needlessly discovering that the other needed to learn a similar lesson.

This is the deeper meaning of the Torah’s ruling that they aren’t a single unit. They weren’t brought to the event for a single, joint purpose. They are separate witnesses, who observed the sin, each for their own purpose.

The sinner, however, will not escape punishment. All sins that are not atoned for by punishment in terrestrial courts are addressed by the celestial court, where punishment is meted out by G-d’s hand.


[1] Maimonides, Hilchos Edus, 4:1.

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