If you say, “But we knew nothing about this,”
does not he who weighs the heart perceive it?
Does not he who guards your life know it?
Will he not repay everyone according to what they have done? — Proverbs 24:12
An often-used defense for Nazis accused of war crimes was that they were “only following orders.” For the most part, however, that excuse did not work. It did not justify the murder of millions of innocent men, women, and children. Those accused knew what they were doing, and they knew it was wrong.
Whether or not they wanted to defy orders but could not, we’ll never know. But in Proverbs, Solomon warned: “If you say, ‘But we knew nothing about this,’ does not he who weighs the heart perceive it?” We may not know who is guilty, but God knows. God weighs each heart.
This verse also applies to each of us. How many injustices have we witnessed that we do nothing about? This verse declares that it is not OK to turn the other way when we know something wrong is going on. Whether it’s happening in our neighborhood, our office, school classroom, or halfway around the world, we cannot say, “We did not know, and so we did not act.” God knows if we know, and He expects us to act.
The Jewish sages note that the verse is written in plural form, “We knew nothing.” Some people excuse themselves from the responsibility of taking action because no one else is doing anything. The thought process goes that if no one else is taking care of this problem, why should we do anything?
But God expects more from us. It doesn’t matter if no one else is standing up for what is just and right. God sees us as the powerful individuals that we are, and He expects us to take action even if we are the only ones doing so.
Another attitude many people assume is that there is nothing they can do. How can one person solve the world’s problems? The sages also speak to this issue and comment on this verse that there is always something we can do. We can take small actions. We can contribute charity to organizations that make a tangible difference. And we can always pray.
The verse concludes, “Will he not repay everyone according to what they have done?” One way to understand this verse is that we will be held accountable for the evil others have done if we knew about it and did nothing. But there is another way to understand the verse. When we stand up for what’s right, it’s scary. We may pay a price for doing so by losing friends, money, or perhaps our reputation. However, God will “repay everyone according to what they have done.” God will reward us for our moral clarity and willingness to act.
God knows what’s truly in our heart. When He weighs ours, what will His conclusion be?
With prayers for shalom, peace,
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein
Founder and President