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NO BRIBES ALLOWED

by Michael Alterman    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

The Torah commands in this week's portion that it is forbidden for a judge to accept any bribes because, as the verse explains, "The bribe will blind those who see and corrupt the words of the just" (Exodus 23:8).

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The Torah commands in this week's portion that it is forbidden for a judge to accept any bribes because, as the verse explains, "The bribe will blind those who see and corrupt the words of the just" (Exodus 23:8). Rashi, the fundamental commentator on the Torah, explains further that this injunction applies at all times in all cases, even if the judge still plans to adjudicate the case properly. Such a law, however, does not seem to make much sense, for if a person is totally confident that the bribe he is accepting will have absolutely no effect on his judgment, then why should he not be permitted to accept a gift from a litigant? What is wrong with making some extra money on the side if it won't have any adverse consequences anyway?

To answer this question, the Talmud (Tractate Ketubot 105b) offers a profound insight into human psychology. Our sages teach that once a person accepts any kind of gift from a litigant, his opinions automatically lean towards that litigant's argument to the extent that it becomes virtually impossible to remain unbiased and emotionally detached. In effect, the judge and the litigant become one person, as their opinions and thought processes are intrinsically bound together. Now that the judge has become personally involved in the case, he is unable to hear the other side of the argument. Even if the judge genuinely intends to rule properly, since he is unable to view himself as being guilty, he will find it extremely difficult to rule against the one who paid him the bribe. The judge has been blinded.

Our sages teach that Hashem created the world with lashon hakodesh, the Hebrew language. Unlike other languages whose words are simply convenient terms that people agreed to use when referring to particular things, Hebrew words characterize the actual essence and spiritual constitution of an object or idea. As such, a fascinating hint to the destructive power of a bribe can be found in the Hebrew word for "bribe" itself - "shochad" spelled with the letters shin, chet, and dalet. Points out the Sh'lah Hakadosh, one of the leading Torah scholars of the early 17th century, the three letters in the alphabet immediately following the letters of "shochad" are tav, tet, and hei respectively. This spells "tateh" - pervert. Indeed, the direct result of taking a shochad (bribe) is tateh, a perversion of justice.

We must not be deluded into thinking that, while all this may be quite interesting, it is unrelated to the lives and decisions made by regular people. One may think that only judges and those of great influence need to be concerned with the destructive power of bribery. However, nothing could be further from the truth. When we attempt to make decisions in our own lives, we are faced with similarly debilitating biases which blind us from entertaining new ideas that run counter to what we have been doing until now. When entrenched in a disagreement with a friend, we may be unwilling to even consider the truth of the other person's argument. When we first hear about a Torah ideal which we had never before come across, our reaction all too often is to throw up every defense mechanism and argument we can think of to avoid accepting it as truth, especially when acceptance of the lesson would obligate us to make uncomfortable adjustments to our lives and our dearly held philosophies.

We fail to consider whether or not we are acting correctly since it is always easier to maintain things as they are. In this self-destructive manner, our comfort with the status quo "bribes" us into obstinately maintaining our basic assumptions, and prevents us from making improvements in our character traits and behavior, even before we have given the idea any serious thought. True growth comes only when we open up our minds and approach life honestly, rationally, and responsibly.

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Some of the ideas contained in this article are based upon the writings of Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, a middle 20th century thinker and master of Torah ethics (mussar) in England and Israel.

Michael Alterman, who hails from Atlanta, is enrolled in a joint program with Ner Israel Rabbinical College and Johns Hopkins University, both in Baltimore

You are invited to read more Parshat Mishpatim articles.

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