Earth in Hands

The Talmud teaches that the court needs to make a declaration to the witnesses to inspire them to tell the truth.

Being a witness in a criminal trial is a serious responsibility. What that witness says, or doesn’t say, has a decisive impact on the life of the person who stands accused. When the case is a capital trial, the weight of the witness’ words becomes enormous.

Given these high stakes, the Talmud teaches that the court needs to make a declaration to the witnesses to inspire them to tell the truth. This declaration includes reminding the witnesses that every human being’s life is precious. It is pointed out to the witnesses that when God created humanity, He did so by fashioning a single man and woman, to give us an appreciation for the preciousness of human life — to teach us that one life is an entire world, and that “whoever destroys one life, destroys a world,” and “whoever saves one life, saves a world.”

Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein
Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein

The witnesses are also told to reflect on the statement from the Talmud that every person should have an awareness that “the world was created for me” (Sanhedrin 37a). Think about that for a minute; it’s an extraordinary declaration — that God created the world for you, and that if you were the only person on Earth, the entire creation of the cosmos would nevertheless be justified.

It’s not just an astounding statement, it also gives us pause for thought. Surely, thinking of ourselves in these terms leads to extreme arrogance and literal self-centeredness, which are antithetical to Torah? Indeed, we know that humility is one of the Torah’s core values. The Rambam points out that while, with other character traits, a person should follow the middle path, when it comes to humility, a person should go to the extreme and be extremely humble.

Rashi, in his commentary to the Talmud, has an answer to this problem. He explains that the statement: “The world was created for me” is to instill within the witnesses an awareness of their own greatness and preciousness before God, which, in turn, will inspire them to tell the truth, because to lie and perjure themselves in court is beneath them.

Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz applies this lesson more generally. He says one of the most important ways to inspire ourselves to do good in the world and be better people is to believe in our own inherent greatness and our own preciousness in the eyes of God. An awareness of our own greatness inspires us to become even greater and to hold ourselves to the highest standards of ethical behavior. From such a perspective, wrongdoing is simply beneath our dignity.

Rav Shmuelevitz connects this idea to this week’s Torah portion, Shemot, which describes how Egyptian slavery began only after the death of Joseph. As viceroy, while he was alive, Joseph’s position and status in Egypt would have protected the Jewish people from oppression. Once he passed away, however, that barrier was removed, and the mass enslavement could commence.

Interestingly, though, the Torah seems to imply that it wasn’t just Joseph that averted the onset of enslavement. The verse says: “And Joseph died and all his brothers and all of that generation.” (Shemot 1:6) The Ohr HaChaim points out that Joseph’s brothers, and in fact that entire generation of great leaders, were held in such high regard by the Egyptians that enslaving the Jewish people at that time wasn’t an option.

But, Rav Shmuelevitz takes it one step further. He says the Jewish people themselves were their own bulwark against enslavement. They had in their midst people of greatness who inspired them with a sense of their own self-worth, their own inner greatness and, therefore, made them invulnerable to subjugation.

The connection to Rashi’s comment about charging the witnesses with a sense of self-worth as a bulwark against false testimony and corruption is clear. A person who says to himself: “The world was created for me” is aware of his own inner greatness, his God-given potential; and this awareness becomes a protective shield — whether it’s protection against subjugation at the hands of others or protection against stumbling into wrongdoing.

This deep, internal self-esteem rouses a person to achieve things that would otherwise be unattainable. We have a dramatic illustration of this in the Torah. The Jewish people in the desert were instructed by God to build a magnificent edifice called the Mishkan — a sanctuary for God’s presence. The Mishkan was a complex structure, made of all kinds of precious metals, and requiring a very high degree of skill to assemble. Remember, this was a nation of newly freed slaves who seemingly had none of the skills or experience necessary to build such an edifice. And yet people came forward in droves to volunteer their services.

The verse describes how “every person was lifted up by his heart,” (Shemot 35:21) which the Ramban takes to mean they were inspired by a feeling of confidence — by the unshakeable conviction that they could perform this task even though they didn’t know how to. And indeed, they rose to the occasion, taught themselves the art of Mishkan-making, and assembled the Mishkan in all its beauty and all its complexity. Their sense of self-worth and of their own limitless potential helped them pull through.

The Torah says we are created in God’s image; that our souls are in some way a reflection of the Divine. The Midrash on Psalms makes this connection more explicit, drawing a number of connections between the soul and its Creator. The Midrash says the soul fills the body the way God fills the universe; that the soul sustains the body in the same way God sustains the universe; that the soul perceives yet cannot be seen, just as God perceives but cannot be seen.

And so we have within us this God-given greatness, this infinite potential, this Divine dignity that comes with being created in our Creator’s image. We hold within us the reason not just for our own existence, but for all existence. And we need to be acutely aware of this fact, because being aware of it will inspire us to do good, to be great, to reach heights we couldn’t previously imagine. And being awake to our own Divine potential, to our own preciousness in the eyes of the One who created us, will help us avoid the pitfalls that so often obscure our own inner greatness, to ourselves and to others.

There’s a light within us that’s alive, that we can turn on and shine out to the world. And we need to know it’s there. That awareness that “the world was created for me” can, with a healthy dose of humility, be the driving force for good in every aspect of our lives. 

Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein, who has a PhD. in Human Rights Law, is the chief rabbi of South Africa. This article first appeared on

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