Shabbat Mishpatim 5775: Bribery in the Torah and in NYS

With fifty-three mitzvot, 24 positive and 29 negative, Parashat Mishpatim is aptly named. Doubly so, in fact, since the word “mishpatim” can mean both “rules,” and “sentences,” and most of the rules are issued in brief units of a sentence or two. A striking feature of these rules is their apodictic nature. That is, they are for the most part stated without a rationale, unlike casuistic, or justified law. Don’t murder; don’t lie; don’t curse God; don’t steal. As Moshe Weinfeld explains in his 1973 essay, “The Origin of the Apodictic Law: An Overlooked Source,” (Vetus Test.23:1) the laws of this section of Exodus are distinguished from most codes of the Ancient Near East by their use of the second person singular command form, and can be understood only within the context of a covenant binding Israel to God. Israel does not need to be convinced; it is already covenanted to God (though these rules are stated prior to the covenantal ceremony of chapter 24).

Still, our text does periodically break from its blunt format in order to offer explanations. In 22:21-23, God promises to avenge oppressed orphans and widows. In 22:26, God explains the rule given in the prior verse not to keep the garment used by a poor person to guarantee a loan overnight, saying, “for it is his only clothing, the sole covering for his skin. In what else shall he sleep? Therefore, if he cries out to Me, I will pay heed, for I am compassionate.” An explanation is offered in 23:9 for the command not to oppress the stranger, “for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.” In each of these cases, the format of apodictic law gives way to a statement of moral indignation over the oppression of society’s most vulnerable classes. Another example involves the prohibition of bribery in 23:8, “for bribes blind the clear-sighted and upset the pleas of those who are in the right.” (all translations from NJPS). 

Why does the text abandon its authoritarian tone for these specific mitzvot? One way to answer is in reference to human nature; the other involves the nature of God. In fact, these two perspectives are linked. No society is truly egalitarian—even the kibbutzim of early Israel that enforced the quality of income and assets had a pecking order of social status. And it is human nature to care more for the people to whom one relates. The Torah seems to anticipate that the suffering of some people—the indigent, the stranger, and the orphan and widow—is too much to bear, so they are easily ignored. Instead of issuing a simple command to treat such people with compassion and generosity, the Torah adds an explanation. You too were weak once; God is attuned to their suffering; if you oppress them, watch out for God’s anger. Implicit: don’t become Pharaoh. God is compassionate for the weak; you don’t want to become their oppressor, and thus God’s enemy.

Likewise with bribery, it can be easy to rationalize to oneself that the only way to “get justice” (that is, what you want), is to grease the wheels a bit. There is always an easy argument—everyone does it, it’s the only way to get results etc. Perhaps this is why the Torah does not leave the prohibition of bribery without explanation. Bribery blinds the clear-sighted—both the briber and the bribed—and it upsets the pleas of those who are in right. No matter how noble one’s cause may be, bribery is incompatible with justice.

The Torah uses “blindness” as a metaphor for the inability to see the just solution. We of course should note that using a disability as a metaphor for moral failure is itself an injustice. The rabbinic interpreters generally avoid focusing on this image of blindness, although Midrash Bereshit Rabba does imply that Isaac became blind not from old age but because he was eager to accept a “bribe” from Esau to give him the blessing that had already been sold to Jacob. Talmud Bavli Ketubot 105a presents a  more common theme—that if bribery can corrupt the righteous, how much more so does it deepen the descent into evil of those who are already corrupted. 

We in New York have learned this lesson painfully with several examples of long-term corruption in government (e.g. State Assembly speaker Sheldon Silver, arrested Jan. 22, 2015 on charges of fraud, conspiracy and corruption) and in charity (e.g. William Rapfogel of Metropolitan NY Council on Jewish Poverty). Indeed, the NYT reported in July that Rapfogel’s wife Judy served as Silver’s chief of staff and in his office since 1973. The rabbis teach that “one trangression draws another” and in many of these cases there seems to be a network of people who present themselves as compassionate and just, while masking their own corruption.  The Forward reported this week that, since 2013, four NY area Jewish charities have been rocked by financial scandals. The fact that many of the accused have been observant Jews reinforces the sense that some rules cannot simply be put forth, but must be reinforced with explanations that reach the moral conscience.

Parashat Mishpatim presents us with images of the world as it ought to be, where a simple statement of right and wrong should suffice, and also of the world where we actually reside. Ethical conduct can never be taken for granted, but must be reinforced with rules, narratives and the effective mechanisms of social scrutiny. Most of all, Parashat Mishpatim appeals to our own sense of integrity—you shall be holy people with me. When we conduct ourselves in holiness, then the divine presence does not depart, but rather infuses our lives with blessing. So may it be for all of us this Shabbat of Mishpatim.

שמות פרק כג, ח 

(ח) וְשֹׁחַד לֹא תִקָּח כִּי הַשֹּׁחַד יְעַוֵּר פִּקְחִים וִיסַלֵּף דִּבְרֵי צַדִּיקִים: 

תלמוד בבלי מסכת כתובות דף קה עמוד א 

תנו רבנן: כי השוחד יעור עיני חכמים – קל וחומר לטפשין, ויסלף דברי צדיקים – קל וחומר לרשעים. 

בראשית רבה (וילנא) פרשת תולדות פרשה סה סימן ז 

ז ר’ יצחק פתח (שמות כג) ושוחד לא תקח וגו’, אמר ר”י ומה אם מי שנטל שוחד ממי שהיה חייב לו כהו עיניו, הלוקח שוחד ממי שאינו חייב לו עאכ”ו, ויהי כי זקן יצחק וגו’.