The Day I Refused A Bribe
Growing up, I was taught a fundamental principle of Judaism is to respect and pursue law and order.
In this week’s Torah portion Shoftim (Deuteronomy 16:18–21:9), we are instructed to appoint judges and police officers to implement and enforce rules of law. These officials are not all-powerful; they are answerable to the Torah’s code of ethics just like everyone else in society.
God commands us to “strive after [the highest standard of] justice” (Deuteronomy16:20). One example is the prohibition of accepting a bribe, “you must not take a bribe, because bribery blinds the eyes of wise men” (Deuteronomy 16:19).
People often think of a bribe as someone slipping you a hundred dollar bill. The Torah’s view of bribery is much broader.
The Talmud shares a story of a judge who disqualified himself because the litigant was one of his tenants. The judge was concerned that his relationship with his tenant could influence his judgment. Although subtle, this is a form of “bribery’ which can blind the eyes of the wise.
Years ago, I had a similar, albeit different challenge.
A Jewish family invited me to dialogue with a Christian missionary who had been discussing religion with them. I accepted the invitation because I felt it was important to give everyone a second point of view.
I was familiar with the missionary’s arguments and provided clear responses. Frustrated by my responses, the missionary told me, “forget the passages and just accept Jesus into your heart, and this will be your ticket into heaven.”
I turned the missionary down and told him that his promises of spiritual reward are a form of bribery that could blind my ability to make an informed factual decision. At that moment, I jokingly recalled a sign which read, “My mind is made up, so don’t confuse me with facts.”
In his classic book, Battle For The Mind, Dr. William Sargant describes the psychology of conversion and brainwashing, and the effect promises of spiritual rewards can play in manipulating decisions.
Thousands of years before Sargant, our sages warned us to not serve God like someone who “serves their master for the sake of reward” (Ethics of our Father 1:3).
It is virtuous to not allow a desire for reward to corrupt our pursuit of spiritual truth.
Therefore, our sages taught, “the reward of a mitzvah is the mitzvah itself”(Ethics 4:2). Selflessly doing a mitzvah, in and of itself, fulfills our purpose in life, transforms the world into a better place, and connects us with the Almighty.
Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz