In many ways this week’s portion of the Torah begins to take the very succinct words of the Ten Commandments and attempts to provide us a broader view of expectations, laws and rules for our interaction with others and with God. It deals with the laws of the year of Shmita, it deals with the property of others, laws relating to slaves and laws that deal with foods and food consumption. We will find almost every aspect of life covered in the laws and regulations.
In this portion of the Torah we read that “You shall not take a bribe, for a bribe blinds the clear-sighted and subverts the cause of the just.” It is a loud and clear call, when we receive something there is always a possibility that one may shut one’s eyes to evil or wrongdoing, taking a route which is not the highway of truth. Mostly we connote bribe with the shady transfer of envelopes tucked with bills inside them, moving from hand-to-hand in disguise, or movement of moneys through off-shore banks and unmarked accounts, or even providing benefits to those who do not deserve them. But bribe can go even further, it can also include the appointment of a person to some public office expecting him to please the person that nominated him or her to that position of power. An expectation that such person would owe a favor to the nominator or serve his interests in certain ways the benefit him. Here we are told that this is not a socially acceptable behavior, that we should be aware and open our eys to such possibilities, and to avoid doing that which is improper.
Four new judges of the Supreme Court | Photo: Channel 2
This week we heard the news of the nomination of four new supreme court justices to the Israeli Supreme Court. There was lots of commotion in the media regarding these nominations and tagging the judges as having certain views that fit the requirements of the politicians that nominate them. Assuming that if they come from one or another sector of the Israeli society will ensure that their decisions will meet that sector’s needs and especially those politicians who represent that sector. In fact this is not unique to Israel, of course. We can see that time and time again also in the USA and the nominations of judges to the USA Supreme Court. They are also assumed to be so-called “liberals” or “conservative”, pleasing potentially the will of the nominating President of the USA. Experience shows of course that judges act very differently and certainly they tend to decide based on the law, sometimes in ploughed ground, and in some cases ploughing new furrows in the legal field. Roe vs. Wade was such a landmark decision made by the USA Supreme Court regarding abortions. The 7-2 decision was led by six Republican nominated justices who voted for the decision, and the only Democrat appointee voiced against Roe vs. Wade. So go figure. The judge presiding a case may not decide based on his political preferences but rather based on the law and his or her conscious. To decide based on what the person who has nominated the judge would have preferred the decision to be is equivalent to accepting bribe and it is doubtful that an honorable judge would ever do so.
But this Shabbat is also a special Shabbat, known as Shabbat Shekalim, the Shabbat before the first of the month of Adar, in fact my my very own Bar Mitzvah Shabbat, and the Maftir is read from another place in the Torah. There we read of a demand that everyone “from twenty years old and over, shall give the contribution to the Lord. The rich shall not pay more and the poor shall not pay less than the half shekel, when you give the contribution to the Lord to make atonement for yourselves.” The excuse given for requiring a donation is that a census is to be conducted but the people may not be counted directly. Therefore an indirect method was devised by getting the money which will become a donation, and counting the money instead. Therefore also the requirement that everyone gives exactly the same amount, no more no less. Otherwise it would of course not serve the purpose of the census.
Unlike the bribe, the donation is a very important deed indeed. At times it is limited in amount sometimes it is left to each person to make her or his decision about. The call for donations comes as a reminder of the importance of donating as part of the Jewish life cycle events. This cycle demands from us the profound understanding that there are always people in society who are of need, certainly more needy than we are, and that we are obliged to see those who are of need and we may not turn our backs on them. We also must open our hands to them without expecting anything in return. Throughout the world of Reform Jewry we are busy in small and big deeds of Tikkun Olam, fixing the world to be at least a little bit better. We do so also in Israel in our congregation as well as Keren Bekavod of the IMPJ. We also make sure we remember “You shall not oppress a stranger, since you yourselves know the feelings of a stranger, for you also were strangers in the land of Egypt.” For us being a reminder that in Israel too we have responsibilities towards Jews and non-Jews alike. All of them have the right to expect from us to do the right thing, to donate at the congregational level and to Keren Bekavod to forward our very own Tikkun Olam.
Shabbat Shalom and best wishes for the upcoming month of Adar.
Reuven Marko, 24 February 2017, 29 Shevat, 5777