Notes on Parshat Shoftim

It is fortuitous yet highly appropriate that Parshat Shoftim is read at the start of Elul, under the zodiac of Moznayim (Scales), as this parsha urges us to designate honest judges and to abjure bribery for “bribery blinds the eyes of the wise and twists the words of the righteous” (Deut. 16:19).

Evidently the Torah is making a distinction  between wisdom  (hakham) and righteousness (tzaddik), making it clear that one can be wise without necessarily being righteous and vice versa. Specifically, that righteousness is not necessary, and certainly not sufficient, to qualify one to be a judge.

But the real question is why the Torah added the second part of this verse. Yes, we understand that even a wise judge is blinded by bribery.  But what connection does this have with ‘tzadikim’.  And in what context is a tzaddik bribed altogether?

I would like to suggest the following:

A wise judge who is bribed in a particular case becomes blind for that particular case only. In other words, having been corrupted in case A does not necessarily mean his judgment will be impaired when adjudicating case B in which he was not bribed. After all, in litigating torts, all a judge has to do is determine the facts and consult the statutes.

The Torah then goes on to tell us that when a righteous person (tzaddik) accepts money from donors who expect recognition of some sort for their largesse, his words become twisted forever. Nothing he says subsequently on any subject can ever again be trusted.

We see this all the time — the way roshei yeshiva and hassidic rebbes — not to mention chief rabbis, x-ray rabbis and amulet peddlers — accept money, ostensibly for their institutions and for the sake of “increasing Torah” in the world. Even assuming these rabbis have the noblest of intentions, that they do not personally benefit in a material way, and that they are not in quest of self-aggrandizement through the enhanced prominence and grandeur of their institutions — the very moment the donor expects some sort of honor and recognition in return for his philanthropy the rabbi becomes fundamentally corrupt and his words are forever twisted.

One has to merely observe the behavior of so many ‘gedolim’ (prominent sages); when the ‘gvir’ (wealthy donor) comes around. Suddenly the gadol’s schedule is wide open; the moneyman cuts to the head of the line; the words of ‘chanifa’ (sucking up) that spill forth from the rabbi’s mouth make purple prose seem plain vanilla.

It doesn’t stop there. The falsehood that flows like honey from the rabbi’s lips is outdone only by the degree to which the rabbi will go to bat for the donor — be it by sending amicus curiae letters to the court when the VIP is indicted, or loosening the rules of admission to the yeshiva for the donor’s child, or hooking the mogul up with other men of wealth for questionable business deals.

We’ve all witnessed this over and over again. But the most egregious case for me personally was a Din Torah in which I was one of two plaintiffs, and the defendant was a very wealthy and prominent mainstay of a major “Torah institution”.

The Bet Din was agreed upon by both parties, and both parties signed a document stating that they would abide by its decision.

As it happened, this was a rare ‘open and shut’ case. After due deliberation, the Bet Din — and this was a very yeshivish/Litvish black hat bet din in Brooklyn — decided unanimously and totally in favor of the plaintiffs.

The arrogant defendant then refused to pay. This meant that either the plaintiffs would never see their money, or they would have to go to civil court to collect via summary judgment, in which case there would be a serious hilul Hashem (desecration of God’s name), as the court would see a frum man who refused to abide by his signed commitment to obey the ruling of a Din Torah.

The dayanim (rabbinical court judges) were very upset, not only because of the egregious and cavalier manner in which this multi-millionaire refused to pay the $10,000 he owed to two small businesspeople. They were especially upset because of the hilul Hashem that would result thereby.

In an effort to head off this disgrace, the chief dayan — a close friend of the rosh yeshiva of the aforementioned institution — called the rosh yeshiva (a world-renowned ‘gadol’) and asked him to discreetly approach the defendant and urge him to settle the case in order to avoid a disgrace.

The dayan was shocked when the gadol turned him down flat. There was no way he would offer his good services to forestall this shanda.

I was less surprised, and expected nothing other than rejection on the gadol’s part because bribery is, indeed,‘mesalef divrei tzaddikim’ — it twists the words of the righteous, and nothing they say can any longer have any veracity.

For those who are curious — yes, we had to go to court, which in turn froze major assets of the mogul until he paid his debt. It cost us 30% of the proceeds as we had to pay a lawyer to bring the case for summary judgment.

A few months later the defendant was honored as “Man of the Year” by the very famous Torah institution.  The paeans of praise that poured forth from the Rosh Yeshiva on the dais were predictable — mesalef divrei tzadikim, in extremis.

The Talmud in Berahot 19b teaches us; “Kol makom sheyesh hillul Hashem ein holkin kavod la-rav.” Wherever there is a hillul Hashem, one may not show respect to the rabbi.” Perhaps this is why the Mishnah in Avot teaches (warns?) us, “Asei lekha rav uknei lekha haver” (select for yourself a rabbi, and purchase/acquire a friend) and not the other way around.

Shabbat Shalom.