The current presidential election has uncovered a loathing among Americans for our current political system where the wealthy have more influence and the not so wealthy are ignored or worse. Recent Supreme Court rulings that allowed one to make ever larger political donations have only reinforced this perception. The impact of large political contributions on politicians and the political system gives the impression that the difference between large donations and bribes is marginal.
When a person is allowed, effectively, to purchase a legislative or judicial outcome, it preferences their voice and will over those who are outbid. If justice or a desired political outcome can be bought, the wealthy and the poor are no longer equal under the law. That’s why average people have detached from our political system and we have seen the rise of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.
The Torah (Ex. 23:8) takes an unequivocal stance against bribery: V’shochad lo tikach, “Do not accept a bribe, for the bribe will blind the clear-sighted and subvert the cause of those who are just.” Take note that the Torah isn’t simply concerned with the act of bribery, but how it distorts the perspective of those who receive bribes, leading to privilege the haves over the have nots. In turn, politicians and political parties shape their agendas and priorities around the interests of large donors. The impact of this phenomenon on politics and society is the same as bribery. And certainly the current revelations of the relationship between the Clinton Foundation and Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State are very suspect. To argue otherwise reflects a profound naïveté.
However, I really don’t want to speak to you this morning about politics. You get enough of that all day from the media. But I do wish to speak to you today about bribery—no, not bribing a politician or a judge, but about bribing Gd—yes, bribing Gd. Listen to this scenario and tell me if it sounds familiar. Moshe is a sinner and he knows it. But he thinks his good works—his donations to the shul and worthy causes—will earn him a seat in heaven…as if the great judge of the universe will accept his bribe and turn His cheek to all his bad behavior. Sound familiar?
As Jews we believe that one day we will have to stand before Gd in Heaven and give an accounting of our lives. Gd is the perfect judge, Who judges with perfect justice. Is it possible then to bribe Gd?
Last week I spoke of what should you do if you’ve prayed for something for a long time and it never happened. I gave examples of people who prayed and prayed and at long last their prayers were answered. The message was: never give up and never stop praying for what you want. But what if you could play “let’s make a deal” with Gd and give Him a bribe to speed up the process?
Don’t be shocked. It’s actually a time-honored Jewish custom to bribe Gd. A classic example of this is the Mishebeyrach prayer for the sick that’s said when the Torah is read. In it we make a pledge to charity and ask: “In reward for this, may the Holy One Blessed Be He, be filled with compassion for him/her [that we pray for] to restore his/her health.” Please note the gift or pledge to charity is really not conditional upon Gd answering your prayers in a timely manner.
And the gift need not be just money. It can be time and/or effort for a worthy cause. It can be pledging to perform a mitzvah with greater energy and focus—from making your Shabbos more meaningful to visiting the sick. It can be a kabbalah, which means accepting upon yourself something new to increase your closeness to Gd—like reviewing the Torah portion for the week to come every week by reading an aliya a day or regularly attending a Torah class or coming to shul more often to pray. Whatever it is, when you seriously need Gd’s help, it’s a great idea to make a deal with Gd by pledging to do something you feel is significant to draw closer to Him.
However, it appears from today’s Torah portion that Gd does not accept bribes. Listen to how Moses describes Gd (Deut. 10:17): “For Hashem your Gd—He is the Gd of the powers and the Lord of the lords, the great, mighty and awesome Gd…” Hear it comes, “Who does not show favoritism and Who does not accept a bribe.”
Rashi on this verse explains that Gd doesn’t accept a bribe to appease him with money. One can’t have an ongoing adulterous affair, write a check to the shul and think everything will be fine. Is there a way Gd can be bribed?
There’s a great Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 11:4) on the 3rd verse of the priestly blessing: Yisa Hashem panav eylecha v’yaseym l’cha shalom (May Gd lift up His face to you and grant you peace). “Lift up the face” is an expression also meaning “to overlook,” because when one lifts his face he doesn’t see everything. In other words, the blessing may be understood as: “May Gd overlook your sins and grant you peace.” The Midrash has Gd saying: Ani nosey panim, “I will overlook.” Thus, Gd takes bribes in the sense that if people do other good deeds, He will take this into account when judging them. And so within the totality of judgment, Gd does accept bribes!
An old story tells of a businessman who dies and finds himself on the line where it’s decided whether he gets into heaven or not. In front of him he sees a man being asked to tell about the good deeds he has done. He lists them along with how much he has given to charity over the years. After he finishes, the angel in charge tells him to proceed through the gates into heaven.
When it’s the businessman’s turn, he clears his throat and says he did not have time for many good deeds, and had not given much to charity over the years. He then takes out his check book and says, “Just tell me how much it’ll cost and I will write you a check.”
The angel says to him, “Checks? We don’t take checks. Up here in Heaven we only take receipts.”
It’s not a joke. It’s true! Do you want to bribe Gd? Come up with receipts. Be overly generous. It’s said, “You can’t take it with you.” That’s true! So ask your family to bury you with your charitable receipts. These kinds of bribes are welcome in heaven!
What about in our relationships? If you have a dispute with long-time friends or relatives that have hurt you, are you going to punish them? What about the good memories? What about the wonderful things that have happened over the years between you? Are they not worthy as a bribe?
You know, Gd doesn’t only accept bribes from the person being judged. If your father or mother did acts of kindness for others, this is also an acceptable bribe in heaven. So if someone from the family who is close to you—whose immediate family did so much for you—hurts you, accept that as bribe. A judge doesn’t take bribes, but the Torah does not prohibit a litigant from taking a bribe from the other side.
How can you be angry at your husband or wife? After all, he/she married you. Remember how the other ones didn’t want you? So the next time you get upset at your spouse, remember how, when life was dark, when you needed help, he/she was there for you. Remember some of the wonderful things he/she did for you and accept that as a bribe.
No, we shouldn’t bribe our politicians—not that any one of us is in a position to do so. But we can bribe Gd with our good deeds—not to get away with anything but to develop and heal our souls—and we should accept bribes from our loved ones to keep us close. Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis