Perjury is in the news again. In the aftermath of the Baseball Steroids Debacle, Congress is now asking the Justice Department to investigate whether a certain star player lied under oath during the course of a congressional hearing on the matter. If convicted, this player faces up to five years behind bars.
Interestingly, though many baseball players were implicated for using steroids and other banned performance enhancing substances, and many have openly admitted their mistake, no one is facing criminal charges for their drug violations. It seems that perjury is considered a more severe offense.
Why is that? As a society, we don't view lying as a punishable offense. Yet if someone lies under oath, we're quick to bear down with the full force of the law. Scooter Libby and Martha Stewart learned this lesson the hard way.
When a person makes a statement under oath, he is creating a trust. The judges who preside over courts of law as well as members of Congress are our representatives. As such, an oath made in front of them creates a trust between the individual and "the people."
We don't quickly forgive breaches of sacred trusts. The subject of the prevarication is not so relevant; we can forgive many indiscretions. But to break a trust? That we refuse to pardon.
The Talmud tells us that before a soul descends into a body, it is administered an oath: "Be righteous and do not be wicked." Many have questioned the logic behind this oath. Tell the soul what's wrong and what's right, inform her what's expected of her—why an oath?
Perhaps this is one explanation: As long as there is no "trust" then every act is judged based on its merits. If it's a good deed, it has to be weighed to determine how beneficial it was. In the case of an offense, how bad was it? Is it excusable?
But once a sacred trust has been established, then a mitzvah is more than a "good" act—it's an act of integrity and loyalty. And next time we are tempted to disregard a "trivial" prohibition, let's just think of it as perjury.