Parshat Shoftim

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וְלא תִקַּח שׁחַד כִּי הַשּׁחַד יְעַוֵּר עֵינֵי חֲכָמִים וִיסַלֵּף דִּבְרֵי צַדִּיקִם.
… you shall not take a bribe, for bribery blinds the eyes of the wise and perverts just words – Deut 16:19


There was once a highly respected judge who had served in the courts for many decades who went deaf in his senior years. He used to laugh this away in conversation by explaining that this was due to the large amount of bribes he had taken in his career. Occasionally the query would come back, “Surely the Bible says taking bribes makes you blind – not deaf?” to which he would reply with a wry smile, “Nu, do you think I ever actually saw the cash!

Bribery can have a very powerful skewing effect on what is already a difficult task – judging between two people who are both convinced they are right. We all know the story of the rabbi judging a case who tells both litigants that they are correct: His wife runs into his study as soon as they leave and exclaims, “How can they both be right?” to which he sagely replies, “You know, my dear – you are also right!

The Talmud (Ketubot 105b) relates an anecdote about Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha (90-135 CE) who was a Kohen. As the Kohanim had no territory in Israel to work the land, they survived on obligatory offerings of produce brought by the people. Once he was offered one such donation by someone who had travelled very far to get there. Rabbi Yishmael asked the man, “Couldn’t you find another Kohen to give this to on the long route from your home? Why did you bring it all the way to me here?” The man replied, “Well, I had to come here anyway for a matter of litigation. Since I was coming here anyway, why not give it to you?

The Rabbi refused to accept the gift, and recused himself from the case, appointing two other scholars in his stead. When he later passed by the courthouse and overheard the litigation taking place, he found himself mentally advocating for the person who had offered him the gift, thinking of novel defence arguments. When he realized what was happening, he exclaimed, “Cursed be those who accept bribes!  What this man was offering to give me was in my rights (as a Kohen) to take – and I didn’t even take it – but I feel still feel biased positively towards him. Imagine the influence on someone who actually does accept a bribe!

Bribery need not only be with money: Rabbi Yehoshua Kutner of Poland was once entreated by a tearful widow to call a man with whom she had a dispute to a court-case. Rabbi Yehoshua did call the man to appear before the court, but declined from judging the case himself. He felt that having seen the woman’s pain and her copious tears, he was no longer impartial as a judge. “The Torah forbids the taking of bribes,” he explained, “and the tears of a poor widow can also be a powerful bribe.

“Tzedek, tzedek tirdof,” G-d tells us (Devarim 16:20) – Always pursue justice.

The Torah exhorts us repeatedly to be honest and fair, impartial and just. An illustration of just how important honesty is can be found in an amazing comment of Rashi on the Torah: In the book of  Vayikra (19:35-36) after listing the laws of having honest weights and measures the topic ends with the words, “I am the G-d who took you out of Egypt.

What connection is there between being honest in business and the Exodus?

Rashi answers this question with three short words: “Al Menat Kayn” (for this purpose). G-d is saying here to the Jewish people, “Why did I take you out of Egypt? For this purpose! To be honest and fair in business, and to set the global standards of ethics and morality. If only for that your salvation would be worthwhile.

Unfortunately we do not always manage to live up to that mandate. Yet as we approach the Days of Judgement, we should be thinking over our actions of the last year and putting our affairs in order before the Big Audit. One of the things we should be careful to do is to repay any outstanding loans and pledges, to ensure that any transactions we may have made were fair and above board, and even to return small items we may have borrowed (books, CDs etc.) and forgotten to return – generally making sure we have as clean a slate as possible.

Once we do that, we can be sure that on Rosh Hashana G-d too will judge us in the best light possible, for a happy and healthy new year ahead. Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Zalman Lent


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