Ask any of your children to respond to the following situation. A teacher in your son or daughter’s school puts down his or her books on a desk and walks out of the room for a brief moment. Upon returning, his or her grade book is missing. The teacher says, “I will step outside for two minutes and I plead with the person responsible for taking my grade book to simply return it to my desk.” Two minutes lapse and the grade book is nowhere to be found. The teacher, in obvious distress, summons the principal, who begins to speak to each student in order to arrive at the truth. How would you expect your son or daughter to respond?
Unfortunately, survey says that 99.9% will not volunteer any information. He or she will invoke the 11th commandment – thou shalt not rat on thy friend. (Another version of the survey says that this is really the 1st commandment and that Lo Tachmod has been pushed to #11.) Jewish law and philosophy deny the legitimacy of such a response.
In Parashat VaYikra (5:1), the Torah states, “VeNefesh Ki Techeta VeShame’ah Kol Alah VeHu Eid Oh Raah Oh Yada, Im Lo Yagid, VeNasa Avono,” “If a person shall sin swearing that he does not know, but he has seen or known the crime, he bears his sin.”
A crime has taken place and the victim believes that you have information that would lead to the prosecution of the guilty party. Beit Din can summon you to court and demand that you produce the information. Failure to do so will lead Beit Din to extract an oath (Shevuat HaEidut) in which you swear that you do not have information relevant to their case. It is quite obvious that the “do not rat rule” is never appropriate.
In Parashat Kedoshim (VaYikra 19:11), the Torah states, “Lo Tignovu,” “Thou shall not steal.” Ibn Ezra is puzzled as to why the plural form is used, as opposed to the singular form, “Lo Tignov,” as it appears in the Aseret HaDibrot (Shemot 20:12, Devarim 5:17). He suggests that this usage is designed to teach us that if anyone sees someone stealing and remains silent, then he, too, is considered a thief. Once again, the 11th commandment is disproved.
The purpose of identifying the thief is to react appropriately and let everyone know that this type of behavior is unethical, immoral, and anti-Halachah. Doing so will help create an atmosphere of trust whereby everyone in that particular community can feel safe putting down his or her possessions knowing full well that upon returning they will all be there. The 11th commandment undermines this effort. As parents, is that the path you would like your son or daughter to pursue?