Shoftim 5765 — A bribe blinds the eyes of the wise

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Judges and officers shall you appoint in all your gates, which the Lord your God gives you, throughout your tribes; and they shall judge the people with just judgment. You shall not pervert judgment; you shall not respect persons, nor take a bribe; for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise, and perverts the words of the righteous. Justice, only justice shall you pursue, that you may live, and inherit the land which the Lord your God gives you. …Deuteronomy 16:18-20

A few weeks ago, Ohio governor Bob Taft was convicted on four counts of violating state ethics law, becoming the first sitting Ohio governor to be convicted of a crime.

The governor failed to report 52 golf outings, valued at $6,000, which were paid for by other people, as required by state law. Governor Taft claims it was an oversight; he apologized to us citizens of Ohio and he paid a fine.

There are some people, like Brian Hicks, Taft’s former chief of staff, who wonder why such a big deal is being made over a few games of golf. Hicks said the outings were a break from the pressure of work; he also said “I don’t believe for one minute that anybody got a contract, got an investment, got a policy decision made because they played golf with the governor.” Of course, he might not be the best judge of character, as Hicks himself was convicted of an ethics violation in July and fined $1,000.

I actually have some sympathy for the situation the governor finds himself in. While rabbis don’t take vows of poverty, I don’t make nearly as much money as I used to make in private industry—just as politicians don’t make as much money as top executives in private industry. So I have friends who make a lot more money than I do; on occasion, they’ve treated me to ski outings, paying for our accommodations. If I go into politics, does that mean that I can’t let my friend pay for the room?

The situation brings up a lot of questions. Was it wrong for Governor Taft to accept golf outings paid for by other people?

Does it make any difference if the other people do business with the state or not?

Does it make any difference if the outings are reported?

This week’s Torah portion has something to say on the subject. This week we read parshat Shoftim, which means “judges.” The Torah tells us “Judges and officers shall you appoint in all your gates, which the Lord your God gives you, throughout your tribes; and they shall judge the people with just judgment. You shall not pervert judgment; you shall not respect persons, nor take a bribe; for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise, and perverts the words of the righteous. Justice, only justice shall you pursue, that you may live, and inherit the land which the Lord your God gives you.

Rashi, the great rabbinic commentator of the 11th century, tells us how stringent we are to be in following these rules. When the Torah tells us lo takir panim, do not respect persons, it means that even at a time when someone is first coming to present a claim, the judge is warned not be gentle with this one, and tough with that one, to let one sit and make one stand, because when one of the people in the case sees the judge treating the other person favorably, it will shut up his claim.

The same thing works in the business world. If a purchaser has a meeting with a couple of salespeople, and he greets one with a big backslap and asks after the guy’s wife and kids, and the competitor gets a quick handshake, the competitor’s spirits will fall as he figures the buyer’s good buddy is going to get the deal. If one guy has special social access—like time on the golf course—that someone else does not have it will likely spill over into settings outside the golf course.

Let’s go back to what Brian Hicks said: “I don’t believe for one minute that anybody got a contract, got an investment, got a policy decision made because they played golf with the governor.”

Does it make any difference if the bribe does not influence the outcome? Let’s say the most qualified person gives a little bribe. The person receiving the bribe knows the person giving it is the most qualified and he’s going to get the business anyway, even without a bribe? Is it OK in that situation?

Rashi tells us no, because of a teaching from the halachic midrash Sifrei. According to Sifrei, the verse “v’lo tikach shochad,” “and do not take a bribe,” does not come to tell us you can’t take a bribe to pervert justice—that’s OBVIOUS. What the verse comes to teach us is that you can’t even take a bribe to find the innocent innocent. You can’t accept a bribe even if it makes no difference—even if no one gets a contract, an investment, or a policy decision in their favor as a result.

But is taking a bribe for doing something you were going to do anyway really taking a bribe? Isn’t it kind of more like a tip? Why should it be wrong?

The next part of our verse tells us why: ki hashochad y’aveir einei chachamim, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise, and perverts the words of the righteous. But how would this kind of bribe, one that does not result in injustice blind the wise?

This weekend we have the honor of hosting a scholar-in-residence, Dr. Alan Morinis, who is here bringing us teachings from the Mussar tradition, which is a Jewish field of learning focused on self-improvement. One of the basic principles of Mussar is that our yetzer hara, our evil inclination, is subtle. The path to sin is likened to a chut ha’sa’ara, a thread of hair. It often starts by enticing us to bad path with something that is either not a big deal, or something that is even OK. If you take a bribe for doing the right thing, you get accustomed to taking bribes and from there it’s a much smaller step to taking a bribe that perverts justice. This is one way that a bribe, even when it does not effect the outcome, blinds the eyes of the wise.

I was thinking about this as I was out for bike ride yesterday morning. We have stop signs all around the Old Orchard neighborhood. Even when there is no car coming from the other direction, the vast majority of people obey the law and stop at stop signs. It’s not only because we are afraid of getting caught—most of us also recognize that stop signs are a good thing, they contribute to safety and the orderly flow of traffic. By contrast, I lived in Tehran, Iran for a year, and the drivers there (at least back then, more than 25 years ago) had no respect for stop signs or red lights. A red light was treated more like a yield sign than red light. So people had no respect for the rule, it was widely violated, and the lax treatment of red lights led to people running red lights not only when it was safe, but also when it was not safe—they had a TERRIBLE rate of traffic accidents in the city. That’s the way the yetzer hara, the evil inclination seduces us—gets us to break a rule when no harm is done, so we’re used to being rule breakers.

Rashi also explains that a bribe “blinds the eyes of the wise” because when you receive a gift from someone, it is impossible that it will not incline your heart toward the other person. It’s a totally normal, human, reaction to feel positively toward people who give you things—so much so that it becomes very difficult to remain completely impartial. Which is why our society rightly has laws saying all gifts politicians receive have to be reported, so there is at least transparency as to who might be influencing our leaders. It may seem absurd to say someone would get a multi-million dollar contract because of a game of golf, but to say that is to ignore the human dimension and the natural inclination to want to do business with friends.

Since the gift has an effect, reported or not, it would be better if public officials were not allowed to take valuable gifts from people they might have official business with at all. In fact, in a May 11 speech to an ethics forum at Xavier University, Governor Bob Taft himself said “Public employees can enjoy entertainment, such as golf or dining out, with persons working for a regulated company, or one doing business with the state, ONLY if they fully pay their own way.”

Unfortunately the governor was not able to live up to his own standards. He failed to walk the talk. He admitted not only to having a lot of golf games paid for by people who do business with the state, but that he failed to report it as required by law. A little over a month after his speech on ethics, Gov. Taft told the Ohio Ethics Commission “”It has recently come to my attention that I failed to list a number of golf outings or events on my financial disclosure forms over the past several years.” The Jewish tradition teaches us that just as the ark of the covenant, the ark that held the Ten Commandments, was plated with gold inside and outside, we too should have our insides be like our outsides—it’s not enough to talk about ethics, we have to be ethical too.

I came across an interesting speech in preparing this talk. We are all disappointed when we see a person we thought a good person go down a bad path. The speech, which COULD have been written about the recent events, but was not, says the following: “It has to me been both a sad and a strange thing to see men hitherto esteemed reputable take part in such action and to see it sustained by similar men outside. I suppose the explanation must be found in the fact that in the slow but general moral advance certain men lag a little behind the rate of progress of the community as a whole; and where their own real or fancied interests are concerned, such men fail to recognize generally accepted standards of right and wrong until long after they have been recognized by the majority of their fellows. There was a period when piracy and wrecking were esteemed honorable occupations, and long after the community as a whole had grown to reprehend them there were still backward persons who failed to regard them as improper.”

That speech was presented in 1912, by Theodore Roosevelt. He was talking about efforts by Bob Taft’s great-grandfather, William Howard Taft to assure his re-election as president through back-room manipulations of the primary instead of a fair and open primary election.

My purpose in this morning’s presentation is not to pick on Governor Taft. Bob Taft already has the lowest approval rating of any governor in the 50 states—only 17% of the people in Ohio approve of the job he is doing as governor. The next worst governor is way ahead, with over 30% approving of him. My purpose this morning is use the current situation as an example of some important lessons from the Torah. Being an ethical person is not easy. It takes a lot of effort to resist the temptation to cheat and fudge on things that is all around us. I’m sure Governor Taft was seduced by a chut ha’sa’arah, by a thread of hair, by a little thing—probably by telling himself, “it’s just a game of golf.”

As we are now in the month of Elul, the month leading up to the High Holidays, it is a time for examining our deeds before Rosh Hashanah, the great day of judgment. May God strengthen us all in our efforts to walk the talk and to be moral and ethical exemplars to those around us, especially our children,

Amen

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