Shoftim (Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9 )
It isn't always easy to be objective or fair. Many things can affect our judgment that we might not even be aware of. In this week's portion, the Torah teaches us that a bribe - any gift or flattering word given to someone in a position of decision making - "Blinds his eye, and makes just words crooked." It influences his judgment so much that even if he wants to remain fair, it is next to impossible. When forming our own opinions and judgments, we should be careful to look out for hidden 'bribes' that might make it hard for us to see things clearly.
In our story, a boy learns how easy it is to be influenced by a gift.
It seemed like every kid from the neighborhood had shown up at Fairlawn Park to try out for the Rangers, the new neighborhood league junior baseball team. Joe Feddor, an older boy, was selected as team captain and knew he really had his hands full. Joe had the job of testing out all the kids to see how well they could play, and then to decide who would make the team and who not.
But Joe, together with Brad, his assistant captain, was up to the task. As they walked into the locker room to change into their uniforms they nearly bumped into Davey, one of the boys trying out for the team, who was walking out. Davey caught Joe's eye, gave him a funny wink, and pointed toward the Joe's locker where a plastic bag containing a brightly wrapped package was hooked over the handle.
"Hey, what's this?" asked Joe, but the boy had disappeared.
Joe opened up the package, and was pleased to find a new, professional looking baseball cap, with the word 'CAPTAIN' neatly embroidered on its front, as well as a pair of first-class leather batting gloves.
"Hey that was nice of the kid!" said Joe.
But Brad was skeptical. "Nice, nothing. He's trying to bribe you to put him on the team."
But Joe didn't see it that way. "Then he's wasted his time and money, because I plan to try out everyone fairly, and that's it. Let's get out on the field. Everybody's waiting for us," he added, as he placed the perfectly fitting cap smartly on his head. Brad, like any good assistant, held his tongue and said nothing.
The batting try-outs began. One by one each kid took his turn up at bat, as Joe, standing on the pitcher's mound, tirelessly fired in fastballs and twisted curveballs their way to see how the kids could hit. Brad dutifully stood to the side with his pen and clipboard, writing down how the kids did based on Joe's terse comments of "Yes", "No," and "Maybe."
Soon enough it was Davey's turn to bat. Joe pitched his usual fastball that left Davey standing like a zombie with the bat still on his shoulders. He didn't even come close to hitting it. A couple more pitches had the same dismal result.
Joe was about to signal for the next batter, when he started to think, "Maybe I'm pitching too fast to this kid. He looks like a nice guy. I should really give him another chance."
With that, he lobbed a nice slow ball over the plate, which Davey smashed with ease. Brad, who noticed the easy pitch, raised his eyebrow, but said nothing.
But when Joe pitched Davey a second slow, easy ball, his assistant spoke up. "Hey Joe. I thought you were going to be fair! I see this kid's gifts really got to you," he whispered.
Joe turned red. "What in the world is he talking about? I'm being fair, aren't I?"
"Look how much easier you're taking it on Davey than everybody else," Brad said.
Joe was about to give Brad a piece of his mind, but then he stopped short. "You know, Brad is right! I really have been giving Davey a break, and I hadn't even realized it!" he thought to himself. "OK, next batter!" Joe called out, a bit embarrassed. "Put Davey down as a 'No,' for in all fairness, the kid really can't hit worth beans," he instructed Brad under his breath.
The long day of pitching, hitting, and fielding finally came to an end. The exhausted captain and assistant made their way to their lockers. As Joe was changing, he looked at the wrapper of his gift still lying on the wooden bench. But this time he noticed a small card inside that he had missed before. He opened it up, and was surprised by the inscription: "BEST OF LUCK, FROM THE NEIGHBORHOOD LEAGUE ASSOCIATION."
It wasn't even from Davey! The boy simply happened to have pointed it out to him as he walked by. Joe shook his head and laughed. He had learned a big lesson about the power of a bribe, even one that wasn't real.
Q. How did Joe feel when he first thought that Davey gave him a gift?
A. He liked it, but he didn't think that it was going to make him show favor to Davey.
Q. How did he feel later on?
A. Joe saw that he was being extra nice to Davey, and realized it was because of the gift.
Q. How would Joe have treated Davey differently if he hadn't thought that he had bought him a gift?
A. He would have pitched to him like everyone else, and not given him a break. Without Joe even realizing it, the gift had bribed him to treat Davey unfairly well.
Q. Why do you think bribes affect people's ability to judge fairly?
A. It's human nature to feel grateful to people who have done good things for us. Deep down we want to return the favor. Therefore, when we are in a situation that gives us a chance to repay, we will tend to bend things in the person's way, even if it's not quite fair.
Ages 10 and Up
Q. Do you think it is ethical to give gifts to people whom we wish to influence?
A. It really depends on the circumstances. To bribe a judge or other person in authority is certainly wrong. However, in our day-to-day relationships with people, a well-placed gift, or kind word to help put us on their good side can be an effective tool. But we should make sure that we are only trying to influence them toward something fair and truly beneficial.
Q. Can a person reach a level where he is unaffected by bribes?
A. While we might be able to reach a point where we won't accept a bribe, no matter how tempting, it's not possible to accept such a gift and remain unaffected, if only subtly. It's part of human nature. The greatest and most saintly Jewish sages throughout history would be extra careful never to accept the smallest gift in circumstance where their clear and fair judgment was required.