Friday, 2 September 2011

Parashat Shoftim - Blinding Power of Bribery

Mai Ikah bein Tzedek v’Avodah Zara


The great professions have not had a good few years.


Politicians – I’m not sure they were ever so reputable – but last year virtually the entire political class of this country were exposed. Venally submitting expenses for – at worst - duck houses and double counting rents and mortgages – the sort of thing that made ‘ordinary’ people –tax payers who paid for these privileges - feel furious. I’m not picking on politicians – there are decent honest politicians, but there are those who lose track of decency and honesty.


This year it’s been the turn of the journalists – admittedly only journalists from one particular newspaper – to be exposed as liars and hypocrites. And again I’m not picking on journalists, there are most certainly decent honest journalists.


A couple of years ago it was the financial sector – not, of course anyone from Cantor Fitzgerald – perish the thought. But bankers, traders, dealers – the Masters of the Universe from years passed - have been put through their paces by an aggrieved populace. I’m not picking on bankers. There are decent, honest bankers.


And I’m not even interested in exempting my own profession from the sort of venality and criminality that seems to have struck so many professions these past years. It hasn’t just been in the Catholic Church that the sexual failures of clerics have been exposed. Rabbis too have been exposed in ways horrible and embarrassing.


There’s been a great deal of peeling back veils and many once mighty, once proud, pillars of society have been exposed. I don’t think any profession has been immune.


And it is all foreseen in the mighty parshah today – particularly in two key sections at the beginning.


Get judges, investigative officers. Give them the power to investigate and the courage not to be cowed or bullied into injustice.

And don’t take shachad – don’t take bribes, because bribes blind the wise.

Justice, justice you shall pursue.


This is how the parasha opens.

Have a judicial system, a system that pursues loftier principles than self-interest, a system that protects the decent weak person against the overbearing bully.

And then the Torah segues into a warning about idolatry – don’t erect any kind of false god.

I’ll come back to this point.


And then later in the parasha comes an extraordinary passage.

The children of Israel have been led through the wilderness by a prophet extraordinaire – Moses – touched with the gift of Nevuah – the ability to articulate the messages of God.

But prophets don’t necessarily make comfortable political leaders. Moses’ had a sharp temper and could harangue almost to the point of ranting. You wouldn’t want to send a Moses to the United Nations General Assembly. To fit in amongst the nations you want someone who could wear a proper suit, demonstrate a certain gravitas. So God tells the people, ‘when you want a King, at least appoint an Israelite – lo titein alecha ish nochri.’


And then come three warnings addressed to the people in terms of how they should limit the power of their King.

Lo yarbeh lo susim – He shouldn’t multiply his horses

Vlo Yarbeh lo nashim – He shouldn’t multiply his women

Vchesef vzahav lo yarbeh lo meod – He shouldn’t overly multiply his silver or gold.


The awareness that power corrupts is hardwired into the Halachic system. The awareness that as people become more powerful they are tempted by

i)                    material possessions – the horses

ii)                  sex – the women and

iii)                financial – the silver and gold –

Is totally understood.

It’s not a plea for poverty.

The key word is this series of warnings is the shortest – lo

He shouldn’t increase for himself


Says the Sifrei – raising enough for the needs of government is fine.

But don’t raise funds to line your own pocket at the expense of your people.


These are, for me, the most important passages in this week’s parasha – appoint judges and expose the workings of society to a judicial scrutiny free from the blinding temptation of bribery.

And place checks on those in positions of power – they shouldn’t succumb to temptation in the form of material possessions, sex or money.


Maybe it is that power corrupts.

Maybe it is that once in power opportunities present themselves, opportunities that are  simply not made available to the powerless.

Maybe it is that, once granted a position of power, a person can forget what they owe to others, concentrating too much on what other owe themselves.

Whatever it is, there is clearly something about the connection between power and the sort of behaviour that the parasha rails against that refuses to become obsolete some three thousand plus years after these verses were written.


So how do we deal with power, how do we deal with temptation, how do we deal with being – or trying to be – a decent professional pillar of society.

Maybe the anecdote is in the opening words of the parasha – the instructions to the judges.

Don’t take bribes – lo tikach shachad – Ki hashachad yaavayr ainei hachamim

don’t take bribes because bribes blind.


I want to read these verses broadly, not only about those people who actually sit as judges.

But to all of us who exercise power and who face the temptations of horses, wives and silver and gold – the temptations of material possessions, sex and money.


Lo tikach shachad – Ki hashachad yaavayr ainei hachamim

don’t take bribes because bribes blind the eyes of the wise.

It sounds a little too obvious

Most of us would realise that if we were a judge sitting in our private chambers considering whether to decide a particular case in favour of Bill or Ted, a brown envelope slipped under the door marked ‘bribe to decide the case in favour of Ted’ is wrong.


Reminded of story of student who returned their exam with a hundred dollar bill attached – and marked ‘a dollar a percentage point.’

The Professor returned the essay – and $56.

Those kinds of bribes are easily identified as wrong.


But Shachad is more than the brown envelope marked ‘bribe’. Shachad is that which blinds us to our wrong doing.


Going back to the MP expenses debacle of last year the most interesting piece for me was how long it took for the politicians to realise that there was something wrong with the kind of expenses they were submitting.

As the story first broke politician after politician would explain, quite patiently how everyone did it, they would explain that it was hard being an MP; you didn’t have job security, other people were paid more money and so on. And journalist after journalist and voter after voter would be flabbaergasted at the sheer effrontery – the blindness of these politicians. Why couldn’t they see that what they were doing was wrong?

I think it is because the expense system of the Houses of Parliament constituted a sort of Shachad – it perpetrated a sort of blindness

They were blinded to the errors of their ways.


I think the same thing happened with the journalists. At some level they clearly felt it was acceptable to hack into people’s phone messages – even a murder victim. They were capable of justifying their errors.


The same goes for bankers, and for despots. I think Mubarak and Gadaffi genuinely thought that the people loved them and their behaviour.


I think we all do it. I certainly do it. I am expert at justifying my failings in one way or another.

We all face temptation – usually the temptations of material possessions, sex or money – and we justify our succumbing.

It’s Ellul time – we are in the run up to the time when we need to be honest about our failures and our errors and the most difficult piece of that demand is the demand to admit that the things that we are quite comfortable justifying are really unjustifiable.

We blind ourselves to our failures to see the temptations of material sexual or financial excess as temptations.

We train ourselves to think temptations to sin are opportunities to do good.

That’s the greatest skill of the Yetzer Hara – the evil inclination – it’s to look like the Yetzer HaTov – the inclination to do good.


So how do we avoid Shachad? How do we avoid the sorts of bribes that don’t come clearly marked in brown envelopes?

For me it comes down to a belief in God.

I think it helps to have faith in God.

Particularly that very Rosh Hashanah style image of God who sees, knows and judges.

The God we pray to, most especially in the coming month, is a God capable of exposing our attempts at self-justification and denial as just that.

An all seeing, all knowing Other is a vital part of the religious approach to avoiding Shachad.

Without it we are left with our own sub-conscious acting as its own moral agent and, as Freud and so many others, have shown, our own sub-conscious is rarely open and honest.

Have there been dishonest people of religion, of course there has been. Going to shul doesn’t provide a cure-all, but faith in there being something which is beyond us and capable of seeing into our hidden byways and highways provides an external check on our self-blinding succumbing.

I think belief in God gives us a chance at seeing what would otherwise blind us – seeing Shachad that doesn’t come in brown envelopes.

I think that is why the parasha follows the demand that judges should do justly with a demand that no idolatrous image is erected.

Don’t confuse the one true, all seeing, all revealing God with a manmade idol that allows us to venerate the work of our own hands.

Don’t confuse justice with the temptations caused by Shachad.


If you don’t believe in God and you don’t think you need to believe in God in order to be a moral person, fine – you have to posit that external all seeing eye that is not blinded by your prevarications and flimsy explanations some other way. I’ll admit it’s possible, but I don’t know how to do that.


 We all face temptations to overly multiply our horses, our women, our silver and our gold.

And the point about these temptations is that we are blinded by them. Almost by definition we don’t see the ways in which we self-justify our failings.

We need an external judge – a judge who is not susceptible to bribery, a judge who is prepared to critique our failings and demand instead that we pursue justice.

This, I think is the message of this week’s parasha – and a message to serve us well in the run up to Rosh Hashannah.

Shabbat shalom and Shannah Tovah.

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