The “Oxford Dictionary of Quotations” states that one of the most oft-cited quotations is the phrase, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” The quote is attributed to various people over the centuries including Edmund Burke and John Stuart Mills as far back as the 17th and 18th centuries. If you listened carefully to the Torah reading last week, however, you would see that the concept actually originates with Leviticus 5:1 where it states that a person is obligated to bring a sin offering (קרבן חטאת) “if he was a witness, saw something or heard something and doesn’t say anything. “(וְהוּא עֵד, אוֹ רָאָה אוֹ יָדָע; אִם-לוֹא יַגִּיד, וְנָשָׂא עֲוֹנוֹ) What differentiates the failure to speak out from other transgressions? A sin offering is usually reserved for sins of commission whereas failing to bear witness is clearly a sin of omission!?
I suggest that the sin of failing to speak, although an act of omission, may create graver consequences than an act of commission. Acts of commission, especially those cited in the fourth and fifth chapters of Leviticus (ויקרא) usually affect a single individual. Failing to speak out in the face of evil can, and very often does, impact an entire community. Probably the best example of such a failure is the sin of the Golden Calf. The sequence of events is as follows:
– The nation sees that Moses is delayed in returning from Mount Sinai after the giving of the Ten Commandments and they ‘gathered against’ Aaron (“ויקהל”)
– Aaron tells them to bring their jewelry, they comply and a golden calf forms in the fire.
– God informs Moses of the great sin; he returns, destroys the original tablets and confronts Aaron asking, “What did the nation do to you that you brought this great sin upon yourself?”(Exodus 32:21). Aaron does not respond.
– Moses calls for those who are loyal, the tribe of Levi responds and 3,000 rebels are killed
The story raises three obvious questions:
- Of the 600,000 people that “gathered against” Aaron not one person spoke out against the impending sin. Since only 3,000 were ultimately put to death for it, it would appear that a significant number of people were not active participants in gathering against Aaron – and yet, not one of them was willing to speak out against it.
- Even if you assume that the significant number were neutral, there were 22,000 Levites who we know were loyal to Moses and Aaron and yet not a single one of them spoke out when the people gathered against Aaron.
- Aaron himself, who was placed in charge during Moses’ absence and was originally commanded by God to be Moses’ mouth (Exodus 4:16) also did not speak out.
We can conclude that the entire nation, including the tribe of Levi and Aaron himself, was intimidated and fearful to speak up in the face of what it knew, heard and saw. As a result 3,000 members of the Jewish community were killed.
In the Purim story, Mordecai has learned this lesson. He warns Esther, “Don’t think that you will escape…for if you are silent at this time “relief and deliverance” (רוח והצלה) will come from elsewhere and you and your entire family will be destroyed. And who knows if it was just for a moment like this that you became the queen.” (Esther 4:14) Esther does in fact speak out and the entire community is saved.
The message from the Golden Calf and the story of Esther is that refraining from committing active harm is not enough. We each have an obligation to come forth and bear testimony if we know that there is wrong being committed.