NO BRIBES ALLOWED
The Torah commands at the beginning of this week's portion that it is forbidden for a judge to accept any bribes because, as the verse explains, "the bribe will blind the eyes of the wise and make crooked the words of the just" (Deuteronomy 16:19).
The Torah commands at the beginning of this week's portion that it is forbidden for a judge to accept any bribes because, as the verse explains, "the bribe will blind the eyes of the wise and make crooked the words of the just" (Deuteronomy 16:19). 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 any sense, for if a person is totally confident that the bribe he is accepting will have absolutely no adverse 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?
To answer this question, the Talmud (Ketubot 105b) offers a profound insight into human psychology. Our sages teach that once a person accepts a bribe, 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. Suddenly, the judge is unable to hear the other side of the argument as he has become personally involved in the case. Therefore, even if the judge genuinely intends to rule properly, since he is unable to view himself as being guilty, he will find that he is unable to rule against the one who paid him the bribe. The judge has been blinded.
At first glance, one may find all of this to be quite interesting yet totally unrelated to everyday life and the common decisions made by regular people. One may think that only judges and those of great influence need to be concerned with such lofty problems. 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 which run counter to what we have been doing until now. 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 deciding not to make any improvements in our character traits and behavior, even before we have given the idea any serious thought.
We have just entered Elul, the Hebrew month immediately proceeding Rosh Hashanah. It is a period designated for introspection and teshuva (repentance), a month for us to carefully consider what we have accomplished in the past year and what we hope to achieve in the future. It is a time for us to open our eyes in search of the truth, to remove all of the biases and deterrents which prevent us from thinking clearly. With this in mind, we will be properly prepared to begin anew in the upcoming year and be able to strive far beyond the "bribes" which so drastically constrict our spiritual growth.
Some of the ideas contained in this article were taken from the writings of Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, a recent thinker and master of Torah ethics mussar in England and Israel.
Michael Alterman, who hails from Atlanta and is a graduate of Yeshiva Atlanta, is currently studying at Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Baltimore.
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