Commission and Omission
There is no question that the Torah has issues with the concept of the innocent being found guilty of crimes they did not commit. One of the ten commandments addresses false witness, and as anyone who has studied the laws of murder in the Mishnah can attest, the Torah falls firmly on the side of the speaker of the famous quote “I’d rather 1000 guilty men go free than 1 innocent man be imprisoned.”
In Parshas Vayikra, the Torah goes a step further. Leviticus (Vayikra) 5:1 states “And if any one sin, in that he heareth the voice of adjuration, he being a witness, whether he hath seen or known, if he do not utter it, then he shall bear his iniquity.” What is the meaning of this? Obviously, the Torah envisions a trial atmosphere wherein a defendant is being tried and someone in the audience has evidence of innocence and does not speak up. But there is a deeper lesson here, for one could have gleaned this general principle from the commandment against false witness. Here, we need to assess the concept of sins of omission vs. sins of commission.
A sin of commission is where one makes an active decision to sin. The person took a step and that step was a sin. In this example, one lies about his neighbor stealing grain, and as a result, that neighbor is fined for a crime he did not commit.
But what of the sin of omission? Where a neighbor stands accused of stealing grain but someone was with the accused on the night of the crime, and knows he did not commit it, but says nothing. The result is the same.
In American law, there is a principle that says that you do not have to save people who you did not endanger (with obvious exceptions). The idea is that no one person has any responsibility to another beyond the duty not to injure. The torah, somewhat predictably perhaps, does not see it this way. The duty we have to each other is deep, and we are all our brother’s keepers.
In practical terms, this means that all of us have a duty to each other beyond a libertarian ethos. We must go out of our way to accomplish good in the world. Now, that is not to say that each of us has a responsibility to fix every problem in the world, for HaShem knows we are merely human. What it does mean is that there is no problem that is not “our issue.” We each have a responsibility to actively pursue justice, tikun olam, and each of the 613 commandments, not to simply wait for opportunities to approach us.
If we can all take from this verse the idea that we have a responsibility for active participation, then each of us has more of a stake in our community and also in our relationship with HaShem. We have the responsibility to do the mitzvoth that are put in front of us (do not bear false witness) as well as those that are not (do not allow false witness to be presented).