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Home » Mishpatim

Mishpatim: Throwing Indecent Stones

Submitted by on February 7, 2010 – 4:09 amNo Comment | 1,224 views

Bribery

Among the pantheon of laws enumerated in the Torah there are many that appeal to human reason and intuitive sense of right and wrong. Law abiding societies would have promulgated these laws even if the Torah would not. Yet, it is important for us to realize that even when the Torah prescribes a restriction that we might have imposed on our own, the Torah’s reason is infinitely more profound than that which appeals to human logic.

The precise nature of this ephemeral logic is usually beyond us, but at times we are offered a sliver of a glimpse to help us appreciate the immensity of the Torah’s depth. The prohibition against bribery is one such example. If the Torah would not have proscribed bribery we would have proscribed it ourselves. The obvious reason for this proscription is that bribery perverts justice; it is nearly impossible for a judge to remain impartial having accepted a bribe from one of two litigants. This is the obvious reason. However, under the treatment of our sages a new and more profound reason emerges that hints at the exquisite beauty, incredible breadth and unfathomable depth of the Torah’s wisdom.

Decency

A judge one accepted a bribe of $5000 from the defendant. As the trial unfolded the defendant noticed the judge was favoring the prosecution. His lawyer asked for a recess and approached the judge in chamber to demand an explanation. The judge explained that the prosecution had offered $10000 and, having accepted the larger bribe it would be indecent to rule against them. Fuming, the defense asked how the situation might be rectified. “Quite simply,” replied the judge, “give me another $5000 and we will call it even.”

This story, though facetious, alludes to the deeper reason behind the proscription of bribery. Bribery is not merely a perversion of justice, which undoubtedly corrupts the judiciary. It is much worse; it is a perversion of decency, which undermines the very foundation of humanity and the fabric of society.

If we accept a favor from a fellow human we are duty bound to repay it; it is the decent thing to do. A judge that accepts a favor (even if it is received well before the trial), is not only impartial by dint of human nature, but also by dint of human decency. throwing indecent stones - innerstreamThe judge is in a terrible bind; it is a perversion of justice to rule in favor of the benefactor on account of the derived benefit, but it would be the height of indecency to rule against the benefactor on account of that same benefit. Which way should the judge turn? The only legitimate solution is to be recused from the case on account of the conflict.

That our sages refused to accept bribery goes without saying, but even more impressive was their effort to scrupulously avoid cases involving litigants from whom they have received benefit in the past. The Talmud relates  that a former host of Rav came before him with a law-suit, and said, Were you not once my guest? Yes, replied Rav “and I am [therefore] unfit to be your judge. Turning to [his student] Rabbi Kahana, Rav said: Go forth and try the case. Noting that the man spoke presumptuously before the courts on account of his association with Rav, Rabbi Kahana remarked, If you will submit to the court, well and good; If not, I shall put Rav out of your mind [by banning you from speaking to him]. (1)

In this case we find that Rav recused himself simply because he had taken lodgings  at this man’s home several years earlier. This slight benefit was not likely to sway a judge of Rav’s caliber; surely Rav could have maintained impartiality in those circumstances. Yet Rav recused himself because even if he could remain impartial it would be indecent of him to do so; it would be wrong to sentence a man in whose home he had once taken lodgings. So strong was this ethic that even the student felt indebted when the man invoked the debt.

The Inanimate

This ethic of decency extends beyond people into the realm of the inanimate. Rabbi Yitzchak Alfasi once caught ill and was nurtured back to health in a particular spa. Many years later the owner of the spa was impoverished and was forced to sell the spa. Rabbi Alfasi refused to oversee the assessment and sale of the spa. There was no ruling here for or against the owner for which Rabbi Alfasi would have to retain impartiality, but Rabbi Alfasi insisted that he was unable participate because having once benefitted from this spa it would be the height of indecency to assist in its foreclosure.

This, explained, his disciple, Rabbi Ibn Migash, is predicated on the Talmudic dictum, “Don’t throw a stone into the well from which you drink.” (2) Even if the item from which the benefit was derived is inanimate, it is indecent to cause it damage by pelting it with a stone or, as in the case of the spa, by participating in its foreclosure. (3)

Condemning G-d

Now consider this: If this is true of the inanimate, it is much more true of a fellow human. And if this is true of a fellow human, whose favor bestows only occasional and only transient benefit, how more true is it of G-d whose favor is eternal and from whom our benefit is constant?

G-d provides for our needs and our comforts every moment of every day. He provides rain for the earth and sun for the plants, oxygen for our lungs, food for nourishment and drink for refreshment. G-d provides for our wellbeing and sustenance. He provides our luxuries and comforts. He provides all our blessings including health, family and children. He enables us to derive nachas and to bestow it on others in return. Above all, G-d endows us with vitality, life and the most existential gift of all, the ability to live with meaning and purpose. We drink deeply from G-d’s fountain and we drink constantly.

Yet from time to time tragedy strikes and when it does we blame G-d. The first target of our rage is the hand that feeds us. This is beyond gratitude for blessing; this is a matter of simple decency. It is indecent of us to throw stones into the well from which we drink. It is indecent of us to condemn the very G-d from whose fountain we draw strength even as we mount our verbal attack against Him. (4)

Yet…

we turn to G-d in distress because if not to Him than to whom and if not in distress, than when? In times of blessings we offer grace and in times of distress we offer tears. We turn to G-d because he is the source of all life; the good as well as the bad. If anyone can help us in our time of need, surely it is He; our father in heaven, whose love is eternal and whose concern is unbounded.

Let us turn to him in love rather than rage, in supplication rather than accusation. Surely He will smile upon us from heaven and bless us with grace. From here on forward may we know only happiness.

Footnotes

  1. Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin, 7b.
  2. Babylonian Talmud, Baba Kama 92a.
    Shiatah Mekubetzes ad loc cites this teaching in the name of a student
    of Rabbi Ibn Migash. The student further wrote out that this idea is
    consistent with the Midrashic teaching (Shemos Rabbah 9:10 and 10: 7)
    that the plagues of blood and lice were effected through Aaron rather
    than Moses because the Nile saved Moses’ life in his infancy and the
    ground absorbed the dead Egyptian, whom Moses executed and concealed in
    the sand. It would be inappropriate for one who derived benefit from
    the Nile and the ground to strike it with a plague.
  3. This point is also cited in Shiatah Mekubetzes in the name of Rabbi Ibn Migash.
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