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Rabbi Doniel Staum - Parshas Mishpatim 5774 "SELF INFLICTED BLINDNESS"
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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On one occasion, the Shach[1] had a monetary disagreement with a prominent member of the Vilna community. The man was justifiably concerned to challenge the great Shach in a court where the judges were familiar with the Shach’s legendary erudition and sagacity. The Shach agreed to travel to the court of the tzaddik, Rabbi Avrohom Abba, the Rabbi of the city of Narvadok. Being that the Shach had never met Rabbi Avrohom, the dignitary was confident that Rabbi Avrohom would be impartial and unbiased in his ruling.

Prior to the court-case, the Shach reviewed all the laws and passages in the Talmud pertaining to the case. Based on his own research the Shach was confident that he was correct and that the ruling would unquestionably be in his favor.

After both litigants presented their case, Rabbi Avrohom spent a great deal of time deliberating. When he finally concluded that the dignitary was correct the Shach was stunned. After stating that he unequivocally accepted the ruling, the Shach asked Rabbi Avrohom if he could explain the logic behind his decision. Rabbi Avrohom replied that at first he himself was unsure of the halacha. However, in a halachic compendium recently published he found this exact question discussed, and the ruling was clearly in favor of the other man. When the Shach saw the sefer that Rabbi Avrohom was referring to, he was shocked. It was a copy of Sifesi Kohen, the sefer that he himself had published less than a year prior. The Shach commented that, at that point, he was able to appreciate the wisdom of the sage’s adage “One does not see his own liabilities”[2].

The Torah states: “Do not accept a bribe, for the bribe will blind those who see and corrupt words that are just.[3]” Shulchan Aruch rules, “A judge must be extremely cautious not to accept any bribes, even from the victorious litigant.[4]” S’MA explains that it is impossible for a judge’s opinion not to be swayed to judge in favor of the briber. It is inevitable that a gift of any sort will cloud the logic and rationale of a judge.

In Ta’am Voda’as, Rabbi Moshe Shternbuch shlita relates that a widow once approached Rabbi Yehoshua MiKutna zt’l requesting that he summon a certain individual to court. With tears streaming down her cheeks, she explained that the man had wronged her and should be compelled to compensate her for the losses she incurred on his account.

Rabbi Yehoshua replied that he was unable to preside over her case because her tears had moved him emotionally, and was therefore tantamount to his acceptance of a bribe.

Ta’am Vada’as concludes that a bribe need not be a monetary gift. Anything that may influence a judge’s ruling on any level is included in the prohibition that prohibits a judge from accepting a bribe.

Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch zt’l explains, “Bribery kills the intellectual and moral force of the one who receives it… bribery would make even an honest judge, who wishes nothing but what is right and just, not as clear and firm and decisive as he should be in giving expression to what is right. His sight becomes clouded; his word faltering…

“The idea of bribery in the spirit of Jewish law is given the widest extension. Not only money or goods but the smallest most unimportant favor, service or attention, the brushing off of specks of dirt from the coat, the kicking away of a piece of dirt which happens to lie in front of the foot of the judge, etc. has caused the Jewish judge to declare, “I have become unfit to be your judge”.”

The Ba’alei Mussar[5] explain that the blinding effect of bribery manifests in many personal ways. Our own decisions and “rulings” are strongly influenced and tainted by our own emotions and sensitivities. Jealousy, desire, unbridled pursuit of honor, as well as a desire to live like everyone else in society are all examples of deleterious forms of bribery. The inevitable result of all such drives and emotions is the same, “for the bribe will blind those who can see and corrupt words that are just.” The prohibition against bribery accentuates the importance of realizing this dynamic. Our decisions and actions are invariably influenced by our surroundings and penchants.

The greatest peril of personal bribery is that it can lead a person to self-deception. This occurs when one convinces himself that his actions are just and logical. Korach was the prototype of such self-deception. His pursuit for self-aggrandizement and esteem blinded him from recognizing the ineptitude of his challenge to Moshe’s authority and leadership. His downfall was a direct result of his staunch belief that he was correct, and that he was acting nobly for the sake of national welfare.

The Torah’s prohibition against a judge accepting bribery is not limited to the judicial system. It is a warning about the nature of man, who is predisposed to pretext and excuses. He justifies his dereliction to fulfill his responsibilities and spiritual indolence. In order for one to be candid and honest with himself he has to look beyond his negative emotions, drives, and inclinations.

The most challenging self-interest to overcome is intellectual and spiritual inertia. It is far easier for one to consign himself to mediocrity than to challenge himself on a conscious and preconscious level. It is daunting for one to contemplate his spiritual accomplishments and to assess if he has met his own goals and aspirations. However, neglecting to do so is equivalent to accepting the most noxious bribe of all - the bribe of self-inflicted blindness.

The Mishna[6] advises, “Do not judge your friend until you are in his place.” The Mishna is essentially saying that one cannot judge his friend until he is in the same situation, i.e. in his friend’s, “shoes”. Sefas Emes notes that even if someone finds himself in the exact same predicament as his friend and all conditions are equal, he still cannot judge his friend. Although the external situation may be the same, every person has vastly different temperament, emotions, sensitivities, dispositions, inclinations, and fears. One’s life experiences, family upbringing, religious values, personal life’s mission, and sense of morality all have a strong affect upon his decisions and choices. The response one chooses in any situation is strongly (if not primarily) affected by his internal component, far more than the external situation and events. Therefore, even one if one is in the same predicament as another he cannot fully comprehend his friend’s actions in the given situation.

Sefas Emes is deriving a poignant message from the Mishnah. Essentially he is saying that one may never judge another for, “even if he is in his friend’s shoes, he still doesn’t have his friend’s feet”.

The prohibition against bribery is a reminder of how deeply we are affected by our emotions and internality. One must always be wary of the fact that his judgment is somewhat impaired by the bribery of his evil inclination who seeks to corrupt his vision of justice, morality, and accomplishment. Ultimately, every individual is the judge of his own life and is responsible for the decisions he makes.

“Do not judge your friend until you are in his place”

“For the bribe will blind those who see”

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[1] The great halachic authority, Rabbi Shabsi HaKohen of Vilna (1622-1633), is known as the Shach, an acronym for the sefer he authored, Sifsei Kohen. Sifsei Kohen is one of the classic commentaries on the Shulchan Aruch.

[2] Shabbos 119a

[3] Shemos 23:8

[4] Choshen Mishpat 9:1

[5] Master Ethicists

[6] Avos 2:4

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