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Parashat 08/13/2010

Parashat Shoftim
submitted by Robert Rabinoff

As the name of the Parashah (“Judges”) suggests, the bulk of the Parashah deals with governance of the nation: Laws of judges and courts; sanctions for the most serious of transgressions, viz. idolatry and murder; prophecy, when and by whom should the nation be guided; authority of the central court system vs. individual Sages; laws of kings.  Volumes can be, and have been, written about each one of these topics.  I want to consider here just one, seemingly obvious instruction to judges:

Do not take bribes, for bribery blinds the eyes of the wise and perverts the words of the righteous.

The first and perhaps most obvious question is, if a person is taking bribes, how can we describe him as either wise or righteous?!  Perhaps we can read the verse: “bribery blinds the eyes even of the wise…” – even if a wise man were to accept something that has a whiff of conflict of interest to it, his wisdom would depart, and how much more so the rest of us who do not have much of a claim to such great wisdom.  One has only to pay attention to the voting records of our judges and elected representatives, and compare it to a list of campaign contributors to see the wisdom of Torah in this regard.

We can take the idea of bribery/conflict of interest to a deeper level.  In his commentary on the Parshiot Peninim on the Torah (15th series), Rabbi A. L. Scheinbaum comments on our verse:

An individual is already a victim of bribery by virtue of the fact that he is born with innate tendencies toward physical gratification and a host of other natural proclivities…

All human beings are in essence a soul, which is infinite, wrapped in a physical body, which of course is finite and mortal.  Gd has tasked the soul with infusing its essential, infinite nature into material creation; the body is its interface with the material world.  The body however has its own agenda; being physical it is attracted by and finds gratification from sensory stimuli.  I believe this is what R. Scheinbaum means that we are all “victims” of bribery.  The material world attracts the body and the body drags the soul along with it, attempting to attach it ever more tightly to the material nature of the body and the world, even as the soul attempts to maintain its independence of the material world while simultaneously uplifting and enhancing it.  It is this “attachment” of the soul to the body which “blinds” it to its own infinite nature and identifies it with the finite.

Lest this seem too esoteric, think of a day when you’ve had a wonderful, peaceful, refreshing night’s sleep, and you wake up and everything seems crystal clear – your senses are sharp, your mind is settled and clear, your imagination is fertile.  Everything you do seems connected to everything else; your life is integrated within itself and with the cosmos.  This is your soul coming to the foreground.  At such a time all the mundane pleasures of the world pale in comparison to the exhilarating feeling of infinite life that you have in every breath you take.  This is life free from “bribery” – there is no “bribe” that can be had in the material world that comes anywhere close to the experience you are now having, and if you could maintain that experience, you would never feel any kind of lack, no matter how strait your material circumstances.

Ultimately I believe Moshe Rabbeinu is telling us that this is the kind of life Gd has planned for us, and that Gd expects us to live.  Not taking bribes, besides its plain meaning, is only possible when we identify ourselves with our inner, infinite nature, the Divine spark that Gd placed within us.  Sages and wise men in every generation have given us hints and instructions to reach this state – through prayer and meditation, through intellectual investigation and heartfelt devotion to Gd, little by little we can come to understand who we really are, and detach ourselves from what we are not.  We need only start down this road and, since our coming to this awareness is Gd’s Will, Gd will help us every step of the way.

Pirke Avot, Chapter 1

This week is the beginning of the final cycle through Pirke Avot.  Since there are only 4 more weeks before Rosh HaShanah (!) we will double up chapters 3 and 4, and chapters 5 and 6.

Mishnah 7

Nittai of Arbel says: Distance yourself from an evil neighbor.

Our environment has a profound effect on us.  If we live in an environment of evil we will find that it begins to permeate our awareness and our sensibilities to our very great detriment.  There is no way to seal ourselves off from the environment – becoming a closed system means dying (Second Law of Thermodynamics).  In fact Rambam advises that if one cannot remove himself from an evil environment, he’s better off going and living in the desert instead.  If we take this advice to a deeper level, perhaps we can read it as addressed to the soul.  The soul is advised to distance itself from an evil neighbor, a neighbor that will take it out of its essential, infinite nature.  That “evil” neighbor would be the body.  I hasten to add at this point that Judaism, unlike many branches of Christianity, does not hold that the physical is inherently evil.  Judaism does hold that the physical needs to be refined and purified, so that it becomes a suitable vessel for the Divine – the body becomes a suitable vessel for the Divine soul, and the physical world becomes a suitable vessel for the Shechinah, the indwelling Divine Presence.  To “distance” itself from “evil” means that the soul has to be detached from finitude – it needs to remain infinite, which of course is as different from the finite as different can possibly be.  Once that happens, the “evil neighbor” becomes purified, refined and transformed into a servant of the good.