This week’s Torah portion is Mishpatim Exodus 21:1-24:18. In it we receive 53 of the 613 commandments. Mishpatim begins: And these are the laws which you shall set before them (Exodus 21:1). We look at this sentence and we wonder why it begins with “and these are the laws” and not just “these are the laws.” Generally the word “and” is not considered a critical word, it’s a conjunctive, a linkage word. Here it serves that precise purpose but in a very important way. Rashi teaches that “and these laws” implies that the laws to presented here (all 53 of them) are in fact a continuation of what is written before, what we had just received last week – the 10 Commandments. All the laws, not just the 10 Commandments are then understood to be from Sinai.
I want to highlight just one law for you. In Exodus 23:8 we find the injunction against taking a bribe, which is part of a section of laws dedicated to justice. Remember the expression, “a man’s word was his bond?” It presumes that worth of a person is based on their word, on their integrity, on their reputation. If this is true, then how much more so must a judge be a person of impeccable reputation and strength of character. Strong enough to recognize and withstand bribery.
There is a story told in the Maayanah Shel Torah, a work from mid-twentieth century in Eastern Europe that is the largest compendium of Dvrei Torah:
An impoverished widow once came to the beit din (courthouse) of the great sage Rabbi Yehoshua Kutner. Weeping bitter tears, she begged him to summon to the court a man she accused of having wronged her.
Rabbi Yehoshua summoned the man to appear before the court, but referred the case to another rabbi, refusing to preside over it himself. “The Torah forbids the taking of bribes,” he explained. “Do you think that a bribe is only a gift of money? Tears can also be a bribe that ‘blinds the clear-sighted’—especially the tears of a poor widow.”
This story reminds us that one can be bribed by more than just money. We are led to understand that a bribe is exactly that which blinds us – by greed, by desire, by any kind of emotion. As in this case, it doesn’t matter if our sympathies lie toward one party or the other, as a judge, the mere fact of having an emotional bias investment in a case is considered as if it were a bribe.
Although the majority of us are not working judges, we often encounter situations in our daily lives where we have to form a judgement, make a decision. While these are usually not decisions that can send someone to prison, they can be decisions that can change a person’s life for the good or for the bad. We can grant or deny someone a job, with just a few well-placed words we can influence on a person is perceived by others, we choose whether or not to believe someone.
In today's world, both explicit and implicit bias and judgement are apparent in ways that we may not have noticed at other times in our lives. This Shabbat and in the week ahead, pay particular attention to moments and causes of bias in your life. How do they impact you? Do they influence your decision making, your actions? Are there things that you never noticed before that perhaps you are now noticing for the first time?
Judaism is a tradition that is grounded in mindfulness. May we all live full and fulfilled lives of mindfulness.