Bribery Disqualifies Respected Judge
by RABBI LEIBY BURNHAM
לא תטה משפט לא תכיר פנים ולא תקח שחד… השחד יעור עיני חכמים ויסלף דברי צדיקים
“You shall not pervert justice; you shall not show favoritism, and you shall not take a bribe, for bribery blinds the eyes of the wise and perverts just words” (Devarim 16:19).
The Torah portion this week talks about the severity of taking bribery. The Torah tells us that a judge may not take a bribe even if he previously made up his mind to rule in favor of the party giving the bribe. The Talmud (Ketubot 105a-b) tells us that bribery has many forms besides money; swatting a fly away from a judge, or giving him a hand to help him up the stairs, can be enough to disqualify a judge from adjudicating a case.
The Talmud tells the story of Rabbi Yishmael who had a field worker bring his father, Rabbi Yossi, a basket of fruit every Friday. One Thursday he showed up with the basket early, and Rabbi Yishmael asked him why. The worker answered that he had to come into town for a court case before Rabbi Yishmael, and he decided that since he was coming anyway, he might as well bring Rabbi Yossi’s fruit a day early. Rabbi Yishmael had someone else judge the case. As the case proceeded, Rabbi Yishmael found himself continually thinking of ways to defend the worker. After this experience he said, “I was only going to get something that was mine anyway, and I didn’t judge the case, yet I was still trying to find ways to help this man. Imagine those who take real bribes. Undoubtedly they will find ways to help the bribing party!”
The Talmud explains that the etymology of the word shochad, bribery, is an amalgam of the two words “shehu chad” — “that he is one.” In other words, when you accept a bribe, you are psychologically linked with the giver. The same way you’ll always try to find ways to defend yourself, you’ll always try to defend the person with whom you became one by accepting his bribe.
This teaches us a powerful lesson in human relationships. Although bribing judges is forbidden, shochad can be a useful tool in other interactions: to motivate our employees, to encourage our children’s teachers, to strengthen friendships with our neighbors, and to bond with our families. This doesn’t have to mean extravagant gifts, but we could send our employees or children’s teachers a holiday bonus, or give our children or spouse an unexpected present for from time to time. By doing so, we will “become one” with them, and they will want to defend our best interests.
by RABBI LABEL LAM
צדק צדק תרדף למען תחיה וירשת את הארץ אשר ה’ אלקיך נתן לך
“Righteousness, righteousness shall you pursue, so that you will live and possess the Land that your G-d, gives you.” (Devarim 16:20)
This week’s Torah portion, Shoftim, opens with Moses’ imploring the Jewish people to establish a system of just courts. Judges must be above repute, and the pursuit of truth and justice must be paramount in their mind.
In stating this command, the Torah uses a double expression – “righteousness, righteousness (shall you pursue).” There is a general rule that not even one letter in the Torah is extra and certainly not an entire word. In fact, those seemingly unnecessary letters or words are laden with important messages. When a word is repeated, as it is here, it is thus not ‘extra’ and its message must be understood.
Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Peshischa (1765-1827) explains that the double expression admonishes not just judges, but all people. The pursuit of truth must be done with truth and not with falsehood.
This lesson itself however, seems superfluous as it is self-evident: one engaged in the pursuit of truth will surely not do so with falsehood!
The answer lies in the individual’s motivation. Many people, for example, are committed to working for a variety of important causes. As such, they are pursuing a goal of achieving righteousness and truth. The question though is how and why they are pursuing this goal. Is it being done exclusively for the sake of the cause or are there other, less-than-noble motivations mixed in?
Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter (known as the Sfas Emes, the Grand Rabbi of the Ger Chassidic Dynasty, 1847–1905), focuses on a related idea expressed by the Torah’s choice of the word “pursue,” in this verse.
In the original Hebrew, the word “pursue” or “pursuer” has a negative connotation. The word is usually associated with someone acting as an aggressor against an innocent victim. Here, though, “pursue” takes on a completely different meaning.
According to Rabbi Alter, mankind has no natural proclivity to pursue truth or justice. In fact, the human condition is just the opposite. Mankind tends to lie, to ignore injustice, and to make do with the status quo. For that reason, truth and justice are values that must be pursued with all our might if we are to have any chance of achieving them.
If we do not pursue these qualities, Rabbi Alter warns, they will escape us, because they are inconsistent with our natural state of being.
The following story illustrates both of these ideas: A wealthy man entered a yeshiva one day in search of a suitable match for his daughter. To ensure he would be selecting the best candidate available, the man presented a difficult Talmudic challenge to the assembled students and offered his daughter’s hand in marriage to whoever could present the correct answer. Throughout the day, students lined up and attempted to answer the question. One after the other failed miserably.
When he had exhausted the pool of candidates, the wealthy man picked himself up, boarded his horse and carriage, and headed out of town. As he reached the city limits, he paused for a moment to consider his direction.
Just then, he heard shouting in the distance. One of the young students was running towards him, calling for him to wait.
He finally caught up, and was barely able to catch his breath. Using all the strength he could muster, the student said: “I understand that no one merited your daughter’s hand in marriage. But I’m very anxious to know the answer to the question!”
Hearing this, the wealthy man looked at the student and said, “You are the one I want for my daughter!”
As we approach the High Holidays, life tends to get very busy. People are returning to work or school after the summer vacation, and we very quickly switch into “pursuing mode.” There is always the possibility that we will neglect to take time to review our higher goals and aspirations.
It is important not to let that happen, because having lofty goals is vital to our spiritual well-being. However, this is only part of the formula. It is equally important to make sure to keep a watchful eye on our true motivations and to invest our full energy into achieving those goals. Doing so will help us tap into the energy of the season and lay the groundwork for an inspiring year ahead.
Trust, a Double-Sided Coin
by RABBI LEIBY BURNHAM
תמים תהיה עם ה’ אלקיך
“You shall be wholehearted with the L-rd, your G-d.” (Devarim 18:13)
In the Torah portion this week, the Torah is delineating the relationship we are expected to foster with G-d. Rashi explains that this means that we should trust in whatever G-d has in store for us. Even one who has the means to predict the future should not do so. Instead, one should confidently and wholeheartedly rely on G-d.
The story of Rabbi Akiva in the Talmud (Brachot, 60B) illustrates this point beautifully. Once while traveling, he came to a town where no one would give him lodging for the night. He said, “Whatever G-d does is for the best,” and went out into the nearby fields to sleep. As night fell, a strong wind came and blew out his only candle, leaving him in the dark. Then a large cat crept up and ate his rooster (alarm clock, Circa 70 CE). A few minutes later a lion came and ate his donkey, leaving him with nothing. After each loss, he repeated, “Whatever G-d does is for the best.”
In the morning, it became evident that a band of violent raiders had swept through town, pillaging the city, and taking the people as captives to be sold. Had Rabbi Akiva slept in town, had the raiders seen his candle or heard his animals, he would have been taken along with them. Rabbi Akiva’s total calmness in the face of challenging situations is the epitome of being wholehearted with G-d.
Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan (the Chofetz Chaim), one of the greatest leaders of pre-war European Jewry, points out that there is an important flip side to this verse. The verse implies that it is only on G-d whom we must wholeheartedly rely. With human beings, however, we need to be cautious and judicious. While we have a commandment to give people the benefit of the doubt, it does not apply to areas that can affect us financially. In those situations, we need to carefully investigate the “facts” presented to us. The Torah recognizes this reality and doesn’t pretend that we live in Utopia.
We see this concept with our forefather, Jacob. The Torah contrasts him with his crafty brother, Esau. “The lads grew up, and Esau became one who knows hunting, a man of the field, but Jacob was a wholehearted man, living in tents” (Bereishit 25:27). The sages explain that while Esau was a “hunter,” ensnaring people in his deceit, Jacob followed G-d unconditionally and studied in the tents of the yeshivah of Shem and Eiver.
Yet it was this very same Jacob who did not trust the ultimate scammer, Laban. He gave Rachel a secret code to try to prevent Laban from switching brides. He devised a method to ensure that he would receive his fair share of Laban’s flock. Jacob may have epitomized the value of trusting in G-d, but he is the same person who teaches us how careful we need to be before putting our resources on the line.
In G-d we trust; all others require a healthy background check!
by OZER ALPORT
וענו ואמרו ידינו לא שפכה [שפכו] את הדם הזה ועינינו לא ראו
“They shall speak up and say, ‘Our hands have not spilled this blood, and our eyes did not see.’” (21:7)
When a corpse is found in the field, the elders of the nearest city are required to perform a unique ritual (called egla arufa). As part of the ritual, they must announce that they didn’t spill the blood of the deceased. The pious sages aren’t suspected of cold-blooded murder. Rather, Rashi explains that they must testify that they didn’t see this wayfarer leaving their city without escorting him and providing him with food. This requirement is difficult to comprehend. In what way would providing a traveler with food have protected him from a would-be murderer?
The answer may lie in a humorous, albeit fictitious, story. A proctor was administering a final exam for a large college class. After giving due warnings, the proctor announced that time had expired and all exam booklets must be brought forward, yet one student continued frantically writing.
When he brought his booklet forward a few minutes later, the proctor refused to accept it. The student bellowed, “Do you have any idea who I am,” implying that he came from a prominent family and deserved leniency. The proctor answered, “I don’t know, and I don’t care. You broke the rules, and now you’ve failed this course.” The wise student, secure in his anonymity, smugly opened the stack of exam books to the middle, stuck his book in, and quickly walked out the door.
Rabbi Yehuda Loew, more commonly known as the Maharal (1525-1609), explains that on a natural level, having extra food in his backpack wouldn’t have protected the traveler against armed robbers. On a spiritual level, however, it would have assisted him greatly. When a person exists in a vacuum, he is judged on the basis of his own merits (just as the student would have been, had the proctor known his identity). He may be righteous and merit the performance of miracles, but the average person is not on such a level. If so, what is he to do?
The Maharal explains that when a person is part of a larger community, he is able to benefit from their accumulated merits, just as the anonymous student blended in with the rest of the class. This may protect him even if his own merits are insufficient.
When the traveler is lodging in the town, he is automatically part of the community. When he sets out on his own, he breaks this bond. Escorting him on the beginning of his journey and giving him food allows him to maintain his connection to the community even when he is traveling on his own. A town which allows a visitor to depart without cementing the connection between them is partially liable for any misfortune that befalls him. It may have been in their power to prevent it, and the elders of the town closest to the corpse are required to testify that this wasn’t the case.
As the month of Elul begins and a person prepares for the impending judgment of Rosh Hashana, he may find comfort in the message of the Maharal. We are all “travelers” through this world. If we live in our own vacuums, we will be judged on our own merits – a scary thought. However, if we affiliate ourselves with a community, becoming part of our synagogue and volunteering to help with communal organizations, we will benefit from their collective merits. As a result, we will enjoy an inscription for a year of health, happiness, and all good blessings!
For Discussion Around the Shabbat Table
The Torah admonishes (Devarim 16:19) judges against accepting bribes and warns that doing so will blind the eyes of the wise and twist the words of the righteous. How can the Torah refer to a judge who accepts bribes as “righteous”? (Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik quoted in Toras Chaim)
In issuing its warning against taking bribes, the Torah specifically addresses judges. Why would the Torah forbid the judge from accepting a bribe but not similarly prohibit the parties from giving a bribe? (Tosefes Brocha by Rabbi Boruch Epstein)
Q: When a person is convicted of a capital crime, the execution is carried out in a public manner (Devarim 17:13). Rashi writes that the Sanhedrin (court) waited until the next Yom Tov, when people would ascend to Jerusalem, to carry out the execution so that everybody would hear and talk about it. This was done to inspire maximum fear among the people in the hopes that such future executions would become unnecessary. The Mishnah (Makkot 7a) quotes one opinion which maintains that a Sanhedrin that carries out one execution in 70 years is considered to be a violent and bloody Sanhedrin. If such executions were so infrequent, how were they able to accomplish the desired deterrent effect?
A: Rabbi Aharon Bakst answers that this question may only be asked by one who has become accustomed and desensitized to the loss of human life. In the times of the Temple, the Jewish nation understood and appreciated the value of every person and every life to the extent that one public execution in 70 years caused such a national trauma and fear that another one became superfluous for at least that long. If we appreciated life with this proper perspective, we would be so shaken up by events like the Holocaust and the more recent tragedies in Israel that they would remain in our collective memory forever, inspiring us to proper repentance and rendering any future reminders unnecessary. (Rabbi Ozer Alport)
Q: If a Jew accidentally kills another Jew, the Torah requires him to flee to one of the designated Cities of Refuge, both for his protection and to atone for the fact that he caused another person’s death, even if it was unintentional. The Talmud (Makkot 10b) rules that signs must be placed along the roads indicating which path they should take to arrive at the cities of refuge. This requirement is difficult to understand. If the Torah is so concerned that travelers may not know the way and could get lost, why don’t we find a similar law requiring that signs be posted pointing the way to Jerusalem to assist those on their way to fulfill the mitzvah of ascending to the Temple on the three annual pilgrimage festivals (Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot)?
A: Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, more commonly known as the Chofetz Chaim (1838-1933), explains that the person on his way to the City of Refuge is not a moral role model. Though he is only an unintentional murderer, G-d would not have allowed death to occur through him if he were completely righteous. As such, the Torah wants people to have as little exposure as possible to him. We therefore provide directions for him so that he won’t have to stop to obtain them by interacting with people. On the other hand, the Medrash relates that each year Elkanah would ascend to the Tabernacle in Shiloh and share his plans with everyone he encountered; encouraging them to join him in the mitzvah. Each time, he would take a different path so as to encourage all Jews to participate in the mitzvah. Rabbi Kagan suggested that there are no signs pointing the way to Jerusalem so that a person traveling there will be forced to ask the locals for directions, thereby enabling them to become exposed to the righteous and join them in the performance of mitzvot. Though most of us are (hopefully) not fleeing from an accidental murder, the lesson nonetheless applies to us. The people with whom we interact are impacted by us and also exert an influence on our thinking and actions. We should try our utmost to surround ourselves with people who will be positive role models for us and our families, and we in turn should strive to influence others by setting good examples for them. (Rabbi Ozer Alport)
Q: The Torah requires (Devarim 19:4-6) a person who accidentally kills another Jew to flee to one of the cities of refuge. In order to be protected from the deceased’s relative and blood-avenger, he must remain there until the death of the Kohen Gadol, at which point he is permitted to return to his community and family. Did this occur during the 40 years that the Jewish people traveled through the wilderness?
A: The Meshech Chochmah, written by Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk, derives from a verse in Bamidbar (20:29) that although this law was applicable during the 40-year sojourn of the Jews in the desert, with the accidental killer required to dwell in the camp of the Levites, such an episode never actually occurred during this entire period. The Torah relates that upon the death of Aaron, every single member of the Jewish nation cried and mourned his death, which Rashi explains was due to his tremendous efforts to pursue and make peace among quarreling parties. The Meshech Chochmah notes, however, that had there been even a single accidental murderer during that period, he wouldn’t have cried at the death of Aaron – the Kohen Gadol – but rather would have rejoiced at the event which secured his freedom. (Rabbi Ozer Alport)
Maimonides rules that if a student kills accidentally and is required to flee to a city of refuge, his Rabbi must accompany him in order to allow him to continue learning. He further rules that if the teacher must go to a city of refuge, his yeshiva must come with him so that he may continue teaching them. According to this, as a result of the carelessness of one student, the entire yeshiva must relocate. What wrongdoing could they have committed that caused them to suffer as result of his actions? (Darkei HaShleimus by Rabbi Shloma Margolis)
Although Moshe and Joshua separated six cities of refuge to which accidental murderers could flee, the Torah commands (Devarim 19:8-9) that an additional three be separated in the Messianic era. What need could there be for refuge for murderers in the peaceful Messianic period?
Before the Jewish people entered into battle, the nation had to give its enemy an opportunity to make peace. If the members of the city agreed to surrender, then the city would be spared. (Devarim 20:10-11)
- We are taught (see Shemot 22:1 and Talmud Berachot 58a) that if someone “comes to kill you, rise first and kill him.” As the Jewish people have seen that its enemies will attack without warning, why would the Torah insist that the Jewish nation pause in the midst of a war and call for peace?
- “When you besiege a city for many days to wage war against it to seize it, do not destroy its trees by swinging an axe against them, for from it you will eat, and you should not cut it down…” (Devarim 20:19-20) These verses are the source for a general prohibition against destroying a fruit tree. (See Maimonides, Laws of Kings, 6:8-10, and Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Shapira, Darchei Teshuva on Code of Jewish Law, Yoreh Deah 116:51.)
Since destroying a fruit tree is a general prohibition, why would the Torah view it as important to include it in the midst of a specific discussion on the laws of going to war against our enemies?
We read in this parsha about the two-part speech recited to those poised to go out to battle.
“Who is the man who has built a new house and not inaugurated it? Let him go and return to his house, lest he die in war and another man will inaugurate it. And who is the man who has planted a vineyard and has not redeemed it? Let him go and return to his house, lest he die in war and another man will redeem it. And who is the man who has betrothed a woman and not married her? Let him go and return to his house, lest he die in war and another man will marry her.” (Devarim 20: 5-8)
- In this first section, the Torah addresses three categories of people: those who had initiated a house, a field, or a marriage, but had not yet benefited from the fruits of their efforts. These people are exempt from battle lest they die in battle before ever actualizing these endeavors. If the person would anyway die in battle, why would the fact that he had or hadn’t actualized his efforts make a difference?
- What makes the three categories unique that would exempt them from battle?
- The Torah continues, “Who is the man who is fearful and fainthearted? Let him go and return to his house, and let him not melt the heart of his fellows, like his heart.” (Devarim 20:8)
A fourth exemption is offered here for those who are afraid of battle, lest their sense of fear spread and dishearten others. The Talmud (Sotah 44a) cites the opinion of Rabbi Yosi Haglili that this “fear” is a fear of his sins, i.e., he fears being hurt in battle because of his sins. The purpose of the other three exemptions, as understood by Rabbi Yosi Haglili, is to provide a cover, i.e., so as not to bring attention and embarrass the person opting out because of his sins. Rabbi Yossi’s solution seems deficient. Why wouldn’t the Torah be equally concerned that someone legitimately leaving for one of the first three reasons be pegged (by others not knowing his personal circumstances) as a sinner?
Q: In listing the people who are permitted to return home from the battle front, the Torah includes (Devarim 20:8) one who is afraid and weak-hearted. Rashi explains that this refers to a person who is fearful that the sins which are in his hand will cause him to die in the battle. How is it possible for sins to be in one’s hand more than they are in his heart or on his soul? Additionally, why doesn’t he merely confess and repent his sin, which will effect immediate forgiveness and allow him to remain and fight?
A: Rabbi Shalom Shwadron suggests that Rashi specifically referred to the sin as being “in his hand” to hint to the fact that he has yet to relinquish his improper actions and is still figuratively holding on to them. The reason that he is unable to simply repent his actions is that he doesn’t want to! Nevertheless, although he is unwilling to admit the error of his ways and correct them, he is still intellectually cognizant of their impropriety and therefore fears the consequences of placing himself in the danger of war. Although he recognizes that his actions could lead to his death, he is still unable to release them from his hand due to the tremendous force of habit. As we begin the difficult work of honestly evaluating ourselves and attempting to improve and grow throughout the month of Elul, the first step is to understand that one of the greatest weapons in the evil inclination’s arsenal is the power of habit, a recognition which will allow us to loosen our grips and completely release the sins from our hands. (Rabbi Ozer Alport)
Jumping Points for Discussion and Further Study
By RABBI ELAZAR MEISELS
“Judges and policemen shall you appoint for yourself in all of your cities that Hashem, your G-d, is giving you for your tribes; who will judge the people righteous justice.” Devarim 16:18
Judges – These are the judges who clarify and teach the law to the people.
Policemen – These are the officers responsible for enforcing the law of the rabbinical courts.
In all your gates – In every city there must be courts and judges. – Rashi
Judges and Policemen – This refers to the Great Sanhedrin [High Court of Israel], whose seat was in Jerusalem and issued rulings on behalf of the entire nation.
In All Your Gates – This refers to Minor Sanhedrins [Lower Courts] comprised of only 23 members and were established in every city. – Rabbi Yosef Bechor Shor
Judges and Policemen shall you place –Rabbi Eliezer taught, ‘Where justice is present, there is no justice, and in a place where there is no justice, there, justice is found’. What can this cryptic statement possibly mean? If justice is meted out on earth, then justice is not meted out through heaven. If, however, the responsibility to mete out justice on earth is abdicated, then Heaven will be forced to render justice.”
The obligation to ensure an equitable system of justice is very high on the Torah’s list of priorities. It is not only obligatory on every Jew, but it is one of the Seven Noahide Laws, as well. Historically, societies that chose to ignore this requirement rarely lasted very long, as they descended into anarchy within a short time and disintegrated. Just as the Midrash wrote, where human justice was abandoned, Heaven was forced to take ma