Parshat Shoftim: Why Bribery Doesn’t Pay

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Rabbi Matt Schneeweiss | Special to JT

Which Torah commentary is the most underrated of them all? In my opinion, it’s the Book of Proverbs (Sefer Mishlei) by King Solomon.


The Sages teach us that the Torah was impenetrable to the average person until the methods employed by King Solomon in his proverbs made Torah principles accessible to everyone (see Shir ha’Shirim Rabbah 1:1). An example of this can be seen in this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim, which opens with commandments for judges:

You shall not take a bribe, for the bribe will blind the eyes of the wise and make words of justice crooked (Deuteronomy 16:19).


The Torah not only prohibits judges from taking bribes, but it goes on to forbid offering them in the first place. If you were to ask the average person, “Why does the Torah prohibit bribery?” you would probably receive morality-based answers: It’s unethical! It leads to societal corruption! It’s not in line with God’s values! These answers may be true (albeit vague) but they are not the answers given in Proverbs. Instead, King Solomon’s answers tend to focus on the practical benefits and consequences that motivate our everyday decisions.

Case in point:

A bribe is a charming gem in the eyes of its owner: wherever he turns, he will succeed. (Proverbs 17:8).

There are three major questions on this verse. First, in what sense is a bribe like a “charming gem”? Second, who is the “owner” of the bribe in this context: the giver or the recipient? Third, how can Solomon say, “wherever he turns, he will succeed”? A quick Google search reveals countless examples of individuals whose involvement in bribery jeopardized their success. Moreover, it sounds like King Solomon is endorsing bribery despite the Torah’s prohibition!

The main idea of this proverb may be summarized as follows: When a bribe is effective, it allows the giver to sidestep or shortcut a system in order to obtain a benefit or avoid a cost (or a consequence). Ironically, the bribe-giver can easily become charmed and blinded by his own bribe – charmed into thinking that “he will succeed wherever he turns,” and blinded to the consequences of getting caught or failing in his attempt. The more he relies on bribes to fuel his rise to “success,” the more reckless he will become in wielding them. Ultimately, the habitual bribe-giver will fall prey to the very types of consequences he hoped to avoid.

The same is true of one who is addicted to taking bribes: He may think he’ll get away with cheating the system, but his overconfidence will lead to carelessness, which will bring about his downfall.

This is the type of Torah commentary King Solomon offers throughout the Book of Proverbs. Someone who is tempted by bribery is unlikely to be stopped by ethical considerations, but telling them, “You’ll be charmed, blinded, then caught” is a far more persuasive argument.

Rabbi Matt Schneeweiss is a rebbi and administrator at Yeshiva Bnei Torah in Far Rockaway, New York. Check out his Torah content on YouTube, kolhaseridim.blogspot.com, and his podcasts “The Stoic Jew Podcast,” “Machshavah Lab,” and more.

 

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