|Linguists are at a loss to find an origin for the word bribe. It is first used in 14th century old French but it means “steal.” By mid-15th century its meaning had shifted to “gift given to influence corruptly.” No one knows where “bribe” came from or how it ultimately came to have the meaning we use today. Fortunately, Hebrew is a more precise language, and its words can be derived from their roots. In Hebrew, “bribe”(shochad) is actually related to the word “one” (echad). When one accepts a bribe, he becomes “one” with the briber and loses the ability to be objective. This idea is alluded to in this week’s Parsha.
And bribery you shall not take, for a bribe will blind the clear-sighted and distort righteous words. (Exodus 23:8)
A judge who accepts bribes will find that he uncontrollably wants to help the litigant who gave him the bribe. In the words of Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch (Frankfurt; 1808-1888), “bribery kills the intellectual and moral force of the one who receives it.”
The concept of becoming one with the litigant is so corrosive that the Talmud rules that a judge may not take a payment from a litigant, even to give a correct verdict such as exonerating the innocent or condemning the guilty.
Although the verse refers to a judge, the rationale applies to us all because even honest and intelligent people can’t avoid having their point of view influenced by a bribe.
Maimonides extends this idea further by stating that not only is financial bribery forbidden, but the prohibition applies even to ‘bribery of words.’ The Talmud’s example involves a judge on a boat to whom someone extended a hand to help him ashore. When that person came to court later that day, the judge recused himself from the case. Another time, someone cleaned dirt off of the judge’s coat and was told, “I am disqualified to judge your case.”
Sometimes, without realizing, cognitive dissonance is employed in a certain kind of bribe. Cognitive dissonance is when my desires have the ability to influence what I think—to the point that my perception and ability to process information will be compromised. For example, a woman knows that smoking is unhealthy and finds herself coughing and short of breath but tells herself that she doesn’t smoke nearly enough cigarettes to cause serious harm. A man who cheats on his diet and, after repeated warnings from his doctor, finally commits to healthful eating but when a doughnut comes his way, he says “it’s just one donut; that never hurt anyone” or “I’ll skip lunch today to make up for the calories.”
When we are confronted with ideals or facts at odds with our desires, what results is a sort of static in the human psyche so strong that it has the power to distort or even block perception.If I don’t want to accept a certain view, I can talk my way out of it—especially as it relates to G-d. People don’t like institutions or people telling them how to live or what to live for. Leave me alone! As long as I don’t break the law, don’t talk to me about giving charity, volunteering, or anything else that will have me come out of my fishbowl existence. To such people, having money or power is not necessarily a responsibility but rather means to give pleasure with no obligation (to share the gifts they have been granted).
This is the modern form of bribery because it has us become one with our own vested interests; we don’t want to listen to any idea interfering with our comforts. In order to do kind acts, one needs to separate from his or her ego, which advises “why should I help this person; what did she do for me?” The question is: Am I a recipient of bribery, perhaps (even) bribery to myself? How can I make sure my decisions are objective? If I am guided by Torah values, I will not accept self-bribery because I will be focused on responsibility, not entitlement. Tzedakah (charity), lending money or objects, or helping someone—especially one’s enemy—unload an animal laden with packages helps a person to think clearly because they are not motivated by vested interests. Granted, we feel good when we help someone, but ultimately one doesn’t live a life of supporting and being of service to others because of the benefits. When your actions are motivated by thinking how I can be of service to others, you stand a chance of avoiding the “what’s in it for me” bribe. When someone gives us a bribe, we can no longer trust the integrity of our thought process—and the same applies when we bribe ourselves by doing actions solely for selfish reasons. The ability to think clearly is one of your greatest strengths. We all get used to certain comforts or, perhaps, emotional bribes such as being complimented or liked. It only becomes a problem when these things become the motivating factor in life, and it takes skill to realize when you are being “bribed.”May we all become proficient in this skill. Good Shabbos. (Sources: Chazon Ish,Emunah u’Bitachon; Kesubos 103b; Rambam, Mishneh Torah Sanhedrin 23:3)