March 1, 2022

Chagigah 16

While evil which is witnessed by others can be testified about by others, today’s daf (Chagigah 16a) raises the question of who – or what – will bear witness to evil perpetrated in settings where few or no people can see what is going on, such as in the privacy of someone’s home? To this, the Gemara cites the words of Habbakuk 2:11 which state, כִּי אֶבֶן מִקִּיר תִּזְעָק וְכָפִיס מֵעֵץ יַעֲנֶנָּה – ‘even a stone set in the wall will cry out, and the wooden beams will bear witness’.
Reflecting on this Gemara, the Chafetz Chaim – writing in 1893 – explains in the ‘Chatimat HaSefer’ to his ‘Shem Olam’ how the emerging technologies of his time such as the telephone and the photograph are, in fact, a realisation of the ideas expressed in this Gemara whereby sounds and images that were previously unrecordable and that could only be witnessed by stone walls or wooden beams may now be heard and seen. As a result, this awareness should make us think twice about what we do and, at the very least, realise that evil that was previously hidden from the eyes of many people has the chance of being recorded in order to bear witness in the future.
Today, the technologies available to us are far more sophisticated than those that existed in 1893, and the chilling photographs, videos and recordings of events currently taking place in Ukraine send a shudder down our spine and bear witness to the evil taking place before our eyes. In fact, so much of what Habbakuk says in this same chapter seems to speak directly to what is taking place, namely about those who, ‘greedily take what is not theirs’ (2:6), who carry out assaults ‘upon lands, cities and their inhabitants’ (2:8), who ‘garner evil gains’ (2:9) and who overtake cities and subsequently ‘build cities with bloodshed’ (2:12).
Seeing what we see, and knowing what we know, we cannot – and we must not – turn a blind eye to evil happening in our time. We must be outraged! And we must speak up! Of course, this situation highlights the profound moral failure of so many leaders and so many countries who say so much and do so little. Still, even if we do not have the resources to change what is currently taking place, the stones in our walls and the beams in our ceilings will, in the future, bear witness to whether we were vocal or silent, restful or restless, when we saw evidence of evil, when we witnessed those who greedily took what was not theirs, and when we observed those who carried out assaults upon lands, cities and their inhabitants.
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