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Parshat Mishpatim: Bribery and the Tzaddik

One would never expect a confusing arrangement of verses in a parsha called “Mishpatim” –laws. If anything, a legal code should be a paragon of meticulous organization and presentation. And yet, Mishpatim is a jumble of laws — some simply declared, some explained, some in a context of similar rulings, others coming as complete non sequiturs. And there is certainly no apparent hierarchy of any sort in terms of importance, frequency, severity etc.

The overall mishmash is perhaps best illustrated by verses 15-16-17 in Chapter 21.

15:   ומכה אביו ואמו יומת  Who strikes his father and mother shall be put to death.

16:  וגנב איש ומכרו ונמצא בידו מות יומת  Who kidnaps a person and sells him or he is found in his possession shall be put to death.

17:  ומקלל אביו ואמו מות יומת  And who curses his father and mother shall be put to death.

One would assume verse 17 would follow verse 15 as both describe penalties for crimes committed against a parent. The interjection of verse 16 is entirely out of context here, making its placement unintelligible.

One might think that the perplexing nature of Mishpatim is, yet again, an example, as was Parshat YItro, of the “ein mukdam umeuhar ba-Torah” — that the sequence of the Torah’s narrative is not necessarily the sequence in which things actually occurred. However, while this is probably true for Yitro which is indeed narrative, I would propose the very opposite for Mishpatim which is purely legal.

In Parshat Yitro I dealt with the a widely-held belief that the two halves of that parsha are in reverse order. First came the revelation at Sinai, and only after that the arrival of the rebuking Yitro, Moshe’s father-in-law, with Moshe’s wife and kids in tow – the abandoned spouse and sons who, according to this sequence, were not even present at מתן תורה.

As we recall, Yitro is critical of Moshe’s attempt to single-handedly manage all the lawsuits and legal questions of the contentious Israelites. Moshe’s father-in-law suggests a rational judicial system that is structured to cope with the enormous volume of litigation.

That Yitro knew what to do is perhaps rooted in his being a keeper of the  שבע מצות בני נח/the Noahide laws, one of which mandates the establishment of courts – something about which Moshe may have known nothing, having had little, if any, exposure to a Noahide society.

Understandably, an avalanche of legal queries and lawsuits must have occurred immediately following מתן תורה the Revelation. The Israelites must have been waiting for the Torah to be given before filing their cases and posing their questions. Yitro unexpetedly appears in medias res, just as Moshe is drowning in a bottomless pit of cases.

By rescuing Moshe, and instituting a functional legal system, Yitro is the מכה בפטיש the one who puts the finishing touch on Revelation. Hence our naming of the Parsha of the Revelation “Yitro” rather than “Moshe” or “Sinai”.

Now comes Parshat Mishpatim whose sequence of laws seems inchoate, unless we consider the very real possibility that these laws are in fact adjudication of actual cases presented to the new, Yitro-established legal system. Court cases, after all, are not filed in the order of their importance, but merely in the arbitrary sequence in which they are brought. If a case concerning Hebrew indentured servants (עבד עברי) happened to come first, it is dealt with and recorded first. If a case of kidnapping happens to come between a case of striking one’s parents and another of cursing one’s parents, then this is how it is recorded.

And so we learn another lesson from Mishpatim: there are no big cases and small cases. Each one deserves attention, and each one should be dealt with in sequence. Indeed, big business gets no priority over small claims.

* * *

ושחד לא תקח כי השחד יעור פקחים ויסלף דברי צדיקים

And you shall take no bribe, for the bribe blinds the wise and perverts the words of the righteous (שמות Exodus 23:8)

These are strange words. After all, how is it conceivable that the righteous take bribes in the first place? Would this not automatically disqualify one from being classified as a צדיק?

I would like to offer two suggestions.

  1. The tzaddik referred to here is not the bribe-taking judge. Rather, it is the witness or litigant who is giving his testimony. In court, the judge has enormous leeway in how he chooses to understand testimony, and can easily distort the meaning and intent of what is stated on the witness stand in a manner that can impact his verdict.  Hence when the verse says ויסלף דברי צדיקים and perverts the words of the righteous” it is the judge, who has accepted the bribe, who then proceeds to manipulate the meaning of the righteous person’s testimony so that it serves the purpose of the party who paid him off.  After all, testimony is testimony.  How can any judge rule against what is clearly declared by objective witnesses? The answer is he can, and often does, especially when his bias is all bought and paid for.
  2. We tend to think of bribery in simplistic terms, ie. An attempt to fix the verdict of a trial.  But, in fact, bribery is a far broader category than merely attempting to rig the outcome of a particular court proceeding.  Any payoff that can garner unmerited benefits for the donor can, and should be, considered bribery.  

Indeed when a wealthy man makes a sizable contribution to a tzaddik’s yeshiva is this not bribery? Can it not – as it often does – lead to preferred treatment, ranging from accepting the donor’s mediocre son to the yeshiva – at the expense of a more qualified but needy applicant – to an express-track גיור  conversion for his new bride or his son’s? Not to mention the fact that צדיקים have no problem granting instant access to those who grease their way in with cash, and to treat such individuals with a deference they reserve only for men with money?

Who has not seen famous ראשי ישיבה sitting in the lobby of the King David Hotel shmeicheling and groveling before some boorish גביר who has written, or will hopefully write, a fat check?

Isn’t שחד what modern philanthropy is often about? Visit any large synagogue or Torah institution, and what one is greeted by is a excess of signs and plaques trumpeting the names of donors whose generosity made the bricks and mortar possible.  Is this not bribery? The very existence of the signage is already a payoff behind which once can be sure lays סילוף דברי צדיקים, a perversion of the righteous man’s words.

About the Author
J.J Gross is a veteran creative director and copywriter, who made aliyah in 2007 from New York. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a lifelong student of Bible and Talmud. He is also the son of Holocaust survivors from Hungary and Slovakia.
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