(Major) Injustices and (Minor) Slights
September 9, 2016 § Leave a comment
We all make mistakes. It’s one of those basic truths.
So, the question is not ‘how do we become perfect?’ Rather, it is, ‘how do we learn to learn from our mistakes?’
In our Torah portion this week, it states that guilt or blame is not established on the basis of the testimony of a single witness. Rather, “a case can be valid only on the testimony of two witnesses or more.” One person’s testimony is not enough; it needs to be validated by the testimony of another witness – someone who can say, ‘yes, that’s what I saw too.’ The idea here is that the court should not easily fall sway to one individual’s interpretation of the events.
There is wisdom in this approach: how the witness interprets events actually matters quite a bit. Let me use an example derived from Max Kadushin’s works on rabbinic thought. If Plonit enters a building, one where Ploni lives, and takes something from Ploni’s room when he is not there, is that a theft?
Maybe. For this action to be a theft, it is necessary to have a whole series of concepts in place. In order for this to be theft, Ploni and Plonit need to be part of a group that has a defined sense of possession and ownership. The group must agree that Ploni has a room and that it is his and that the stuff in it is in his care and he has a right to say ‘no one may take this from me.’
There also must be some kind of working legal definition of theft; a court or forum in which it is possible to accuse someone of theft, and process by which such accusations might be actionable.
So, for example, if your sister comes in and takes one of your blouses from your room, that’s not theft, even if you’d like to see her convicted of it.
It’s not a theft if Ploni and Plonit are married.
If, on the other hand, Ploni and Plonit are strangers and there has been no prior agreement made between them regarding this object, then yes, it is indeed a theft for Plonit to take something from Ploni’s room.
Context matters greatly. You can’t take the action out of context, because the context is what gives it meaning.
So, the witness is actually pretty important, because the witness must not just report what was seen, but also (at some level) be able to construct some kind of narrative regarding the events, to put them in context for those who hear the case.
That is to say, the stories we tell ourselves matter quite a bit.
Sometimes, of course, the narrative that the witness constructs is mistaken or wrong. And sometimes the witness constructs a false narrative. As our text acknowledges, sometimes witnesses lie, and those cases it is necessary to respond. So this is what it says to do in that situation: “If a man appears against another to testify maliciously and gives false testimony against him, the two parties to the dispute shall appear before the Lord, before the priests or magistrates in authority at the time, and the magistrates shall make a thorough investigation.”
It says ‘man’ here because women were not counted as full witnesses. The concern was that they could be bullied by their husbands into giving false testimony. But note that this case also requires a thorough investigation by more than one magistrate. You cannot convict on the basis of a single witness’ testimony.
So what happens if the witness is found to be lying? The Bible’s answer is a one-for-one retribution: “If the man who testified is a false witness, if he has testified falsely against his fellow, you shall do to him as he schemed to do to his fellow. Thus you will sweep out evil from your midst; others will hear and be afraid, and such evil things will not again be done in your midst. Nor must you show pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.”
The ancient rabbis, the inheritors of this text, did not like the implied barbarism of putting out someone’s eye in exchange for an eye. How could that possibly work? What if the person already was missing an eye? What if one man had small eyes and the other had large eyes? This is how their discussion of the subject goes. They decide that clearly it must mean monetary compensation.
It means that they must pay the value of an eye for an eye, the value of a tooth for a tooth, and so on.
In our own lives, we have to decide on an ongoing basis how to interpret the events that occur. Which events are actionable? In the case of theft, it is usually fairly clear as to whether or not you should press charges. But what about the murkier events, the interpersonal stuff that never sees a court of law but that creates a sense of loss? How do we evaluate these events?
Here is what I would propose:
First, determine whether the series of events represents an injustice or a slight. An injustice is when someone of greater power takes advantage of the situation to the detriment of the person in a weaker position.
A slight, on the other hand, is something that hurts your feelings. A slight is when you were not invited to an event when everyone else was.
In fact, the intensity of your hurt is one possible indicator of whether it is an injustice or a slight: an injustice might make you angry or sad, but a slight wounds you. The injustice challenges your sense of reality; a slight feels like a thorn in your side.
If it is an injustice, try to right the wrong. Injustice should be challenged.
But if it is a slight, try to let it go. You might want to talk to the person. But an attitude of forgiveness will go a long way toward resolving the situation.
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