Weekly Torah Portion: Mishpatim (Exodus 21-24) What’s Your Bribe

  • 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). How are bribe and one related? When one accepts a bribe, (s)he becomes “one” with the briber and loses the ability to be objective. This idea is alluded to in this week’s Torah portion.
    And bribery you shall not take, for a bribe will blind the clear-sighted and distort righteous words. (Exodus 23:8)
    When the Torah prohibited a judge from taking a bribe, it taught us a new idea about the human psyche and our yetzer hara (negative internal force). 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 accusing and condemning the guilty.
    Although the verse refers to a judge, the rationale applies to all of us. The verse above testifies that even an intelligent and honest person can’t avoid having his or her 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 mentions the following examples of this type of bribery. A judge was sailing on a boat and someone extended a hand to help him ashore. Later on, that person came to court but the judge recused himself from the case. In another scenario, someone cleaned dirt off of the judge’s coat. The judge told him: “I am disqualified to judge your case.” For Jews, even where the benefit is indirect (i.e. non-financial) or does not involve close contact with the judge, the judge must disqualify himself from the case.
    How does this apply to the rest us (who aren’t judges)? There’s a certain type of bribe we sometimes give or receive without realizing it; it’s called cognitive dissonance. That means that a person’s wants and desires have the ability to influence what (s)he thinks-to the point that his or her power of thought and even perception will be compromised. For example, a woman who knows that smoking is unhealthy and finds herself coughing and short of breath might tell herself that she doesn’t smoke nearly enough cigarettes to cause serious harm. Another example is the man who cheats on his diet. After repeated warnings from his doctor, he finally commits to healthful eating but then a doughnut or muffin 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 a person is confronted by ideas or facts that are at odds with his or her desires, what results is a sort of static in the human psyche. This “static” has the power to distort or even block perception.
    If people do not want to accept a certain view, they can talk themselves out of it. One of the most common applications of this is how one approaches G-d. “If G-d exists, then I have to be moral.” People do not like any person or institution telling them how to live or what to live for. If there is no G-d, then I can do whatever I feel like as long as it does not break the social contract of the place I live. 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 a person, having money or power is not necessarily a responsibility but rather means to give pleasure with no obligation to share the gifts (s)he has 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 that will interfere with my comfort. What does it take to do kind acts? One has to separate from his or her ego, which advises “why should I help this person; what did (s) do for me?”
    The question to ask is: am I a recipient of bribery, perhaps even of bribery to myself? How can I make sure that my decisions are not based on that, so I can be objective to myself? A Jew guided by Torah values will not accept self-bribery because (s)he will be focused on obligations, not what (s)he feels entitled to. There is an obligation to give tzedaka (charity), lend money or objects (if it is in one’s means); There’s even an obligation (mentioned in this week’s Parsha) to help your enemy unload his donkey. The person who thinks how (s)he can be of service to others, and allows that to be the motivator in life’s decisions, is the one least likely to accept a bribe-even from oneself.
    What’s your emotional bribe; what’s the comfort that has such a strong hold on you that it affects your power of perception and thought? What are you willing to do to avoid it?
    Good Shabbos.
    (Sources: Chazon Ish,Emunah u’BitachonKesubos 103b; Rambam, Mishneh Torah Sanhedrin 23:3; Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 9 with the commentary of Sema)

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