J.J Gross

Parshat Mishpatim: Yitro continued, and how bribery perverts testimony

One would least expect disorder in a parsha called Mishpatim. 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: וּמַכֵּ֥ה אָבִ֛יו וְאִמּ֖וֹ מ֥וֹת יוּמָֽת Who strikes his father and mother shall be put to death.

16: וְגֹנֵ֨ב אִ֧ישׁ וּמְכָר֛וֹ וְנִמְצָ֥א בְיָד֖וֹ מ֥וֹת יוּמָֽת Who kidnaps a person and sells him or he is found in his possession shall be put to death.

17: וּמְקַלֵּ֥ל אָבִ֛יו וְאִמּ֖וֹ מ֥וֹת יוּמָֽת 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 jumbled nature of Mishpatim is yet again an example, as was Parshat YItro, of the “אין מוקדם ומאוחר בתורה” — that the sequence of the Torah’s narrative is not necessarily the order in which things actually occurred. However while this is likely true for Yitro which is indeed narrative, I would propose the very opposite for Mishpatim which is legal.

Last week I dealt with a widely held belief that the two halves of Parshat Yitro 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 children in tow – the abandoned spouse and sons who, according to this sequence, were not even present at Matan Torah.

As we recall, Yitro is critical of Moshe’s attempt to single-handedly manage all the lawsuits and legal questions of the contentious Israelites, and 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 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 the Revelation. The Israelites had been waiting for the Torah to be given before filing their cases and posing their questions. Yitro appears in medias res, just as Moshe is drowning in a bottomless pit of cases. Indeed, it can well be that in order to even get to see Moshe, Yitro himself stood in the endless line of litigants for his turn talk to his estranged son-in-law.

By rescuing Moshe, and instituting a functional legal system, Yitro is the “מקה 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 incoherent, unless we consider the very real possibility that these laws are in fact the chronological 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 עבד עברי, Hebrew indentured servants, 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

Exodus 23:8

Strange words. After all, how is it even possible that the righteous take bribes in the first place? Would this not automatically disqualify one from being classified as a ‘tzaddik’?

I would like to offer two suggestions.

  1. The tzaddik referred to here is not the corrupt judge. Rather, it is the witness or litigant giving his testimony. A 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 a judge, who has accepted a 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 posited 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, i.e. An attempt to fix a trial. But, in fact, bribery is a far broader bailiwick 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 individual makes a sizable contribution to a tzaddik’s yeshiva is this not bribery? Can it not – as it often does – lead to preferential treatment, ranging from accepting the donor’s otherwise lackluster son to the yeshiva (at the expense of a more qualified but impecunious applicant) to an express track גיור (conversion) for his new bride or his son’s? Not to mention the fact that tzaddikim 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?
  3. Who has not seen famous roshei yeshiva sitting in the lobby of the King David Hotel shmeicheling and groveling before some boorish gvir who has written, or will hopefully write, a handsome check?

Isn’t bribery what modern philanthropy is often about? Visit any large synagogue or institution and one is greeted by a plethora of signs and plaques trumpeting the names of donors whose largesse 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’ 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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