Parashat Shoftim: Internal Repentance
The Torah in Parashat Shoftim introduces the law of "Edim Zomemin," which applies in the case of a pair of witnesses who testify against the credibility of other witnesses. Specifically, it applies when two witnesses come to court and claim that the witnesses that had testified previously were not present at the place where they claimed to have witnessed the event at the time they claimed it happened. In such a case, the first witnesses’ testimony is disqualified, and those witnesses are punished with the punishment that their testimony which have caused. If they testified about an offense warranting capital punishment, then they are executed; if they testified about an offense punishable with a monetary payment, then they must pay that sum.
The Gemara describes this law as a "Hiddush" – a novel concept that deviates from standard principles of Torah law. On the simple level, this refers to the fact that the Torah instructs the court to believe the second set of witnesses and act upon their testimony. Normally, when two sets of witnesses give opposite testimonies, Bet Din does not act upon either, and the case remains unresolved. Here, however, when the second witnesses testify that they were with the first witnesses at the time the event allegedly occurred and they thus could not have witnessed the event, the second witnesses’ testimony is accepted, and Bet Din punishes the first witnesses. This is, indeed, a "Hiddush."
On a deeper level, however, there is also another novelty latent in the law of "Edim Zomemin." Halacha instructs that the discredited witnesses are punished only if the second witnesses testify against them before Bet Din acted upon the first witness’ testimony. For example, if Bet Din executed an alleged offender based on two witness’ testimony, and afterward another set of witnesses testify that those witnesses could not have seen the incident, the first witnesses are not punished. Once Bet Din’s sentence was carried out, the false witnesses do not receive punishment. This Halacha runs in contrast to the standard principle that Hashem does not punish us for our thoughts. If a person plans an outing for Shabbat, for example, preparing a detailed schedule of driving and activities, but in the end his plans fall through and he observes Shabbat properly, he is not punished. G-d holds us accountable for our actions, not for our thoughts, except in the areas of heresy and immorality, as even thoughts of these sins are deemed sinful. Generally, however, we are punished only for our actions. Yet, in the case of "Edim Zomemin," the witnesses are punished only if their plans are foiled. The Torah instructs Bet Din to punish false witnesses who unsuccessfully try to have somebody unjustly punished, but not if their scheme succeeds. This is another "Hiddush" of this law.
The law of "Edim Zomemin" reflects that even our thoughts and our mindset are significant. God is compassionate and merciful, and so He spares us from punishment if our sinful thoughts are not translated into sinful deeds, but such thoughts are sinful nonetheless. The Torah established the "Hiddush" of "Edim Zomemin," an exception to the rule, in order to teach us that although we are generally not punished for our internal thoughts, we are still required to avoid thoughts of sin. And thus the Torah concludes its discussion of "Edim Zomemin" with the expression, "U’bi’arta Ha’ra Mi’kirbecha" – "You shall eliminate the evil from your midst" (19:19). This law reminds us of the importance of our thoughts, and so by contemplating this Halacha, we will work to eliminate the evil from our "midst" – from inside our minds and hearts.
This is an important message for us during this month of Elul, when we focus our attention on repentance and self-improvement. This is the time especially suited for identifying our negative habits and tendencies and working to change them. But the law of "Edim Zomemin" reminds us of the need for internal repentance, as well. We must identify not only our negative actions, but also our negative thoughts and attitudes, the ways in which we do not think of people and things properly. This, too, is a vital part of the Teshuba process, one which will, hopefully, lead us to make the necessary changes during the coming weeks so we will enter the new year as fundamentally better and nobler people and servants of G-d.