Don’t take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the wise and make crooked the path of the righteous. (16:19)
Faithfulness and integrity are essential ingredients for building an ethical life. Having integrity means that we are consistent in doing what is right even when no one is watching. Bribes devastate integrity. Moshe opens this week’s parasha warning us that bribes are powerful blockades to wisdom and righteousness and anyone interested in building a real life, as well as a just society, had better steer clear of them.
Steering clear, however, is not as easy as it may sound. We tend to think that bribes only apply to people like judges and politicians, but payoffs come in a variety of fun flavours that everyone is capable of enjoying. Every day we are tempted to abandon, in a large or small way, a commitment to faithful self-creation, and to destroy the integrity of our lives in exchange for cheap stand-ins. Some persuade us to eat what tastes good rather than what is good for us, some entice us to stay awake instead of getting our needed rest, others convince us to engage with people who dim our identity rather than with those who build and brighten it. We are encouraged to make a buck but destroy our virtue or to toss away sportsmanship in lieu of a score. All of these are bribes, and when we make a habit of accepting them, we leave our identity in tatters. Sellouts corrode the weave of the human soul that allows for G-d’s presence to rest within us. There are only so many cracks that a single life or a single society can maintain before it falls apart.
We read this week of the importance of our personal dignity. It encourages us to love what is right not only as an ideal, but as a means to create a viable life. We are encouraged to be proud enough not to compromise our identity and instead to weave each of our days into a beautiful and substantive tapestry.
Perashat Shofetim describes to us a society that is built on truth and justice, and bound together with lives developed in faithfulness and integrity. It is a society that cannot be mechanically constructed, but one that emerges, gradually honed by individuals who are committed to righteous thoughts and acts. A society is then born of citizens who have come to know, deep within their souls, that truth, as King Solomon wrote, must be acquired at all costs, and never sold.