Torah Weekly

For the week ending 6 September 2008 / 6 Elul 5768

Parshat Shoftim

by Rabbi Yaakov Asher Sinclair -
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Moshe tells Bnei Yisrael to appoint judges and officers in their cities. A bribe of even an insignificant sum is forbidden. Trees are not to be planted near Hashem's altar, as was the way of idolaters. Blemishes in animals designated for offerings and other points of disqualification are listed. The Great Sanhedrin is to make binding decisions on new situations according to Torah criteria to prevent the fragmentation of the Torah. A very learned scholar who refuses to accept the Halachic decisions of the Sanhedrin incurs the death penalty. A Jewish king may only have possessions and symbols of power commensurate with the honor of his office, but not for self-aggrandizement. He is to write for himself two sifrei Torah, one to be kept with him wherever he goes, so that he doesn't become haughty. Neither the kohanim nor the levi'im are to inherit land in the Land of Israel, rather they are to be supported by the community by a system of tithes. All divination is prohibited. Hashem promises the Jewish People that He will send them prophets to guide them, and Moshe explains how a genuine prophet may be distinguished from a false one. Cities of refuge are to be provided an accidental killer to escape the blood-avenger from the deceased's family. However, someone who kills with malice is to be handed over to the blood-avenger. Moshe cautions Bnei Yisrael not to move boundary markers to increase their property. Two witnesses who conspire to "frame" a third party are to be punished with the very same punishment that they conspired to bring upon the innocent party. A kohen is to be anointed specifically for when Israel goes to war, to instill trust in Hashem. Among those disqualified from going to war is anyone who has built a new house but not lived in it yet, or anyone who is fearful or fainthearted. An enemy must be given the chance to make peace, but if they refuse, all the males are to be killed. Fruit trees are to be preserved and not cut down during the siege. If a corpse is found between cities, the elders of the nearest city must take a heifer, slaughter it, and wash their hands over it, saying that they are not guilty of the death.


Ultimate Payola

“...for the bribe will blind the eyes of the wise” (16:19)

There are a few ways to make a hit record. You could write a great song and make it into a terrific record. But there are a lot of good records out there. How can you make sure that whenever someone turns on their radio they’re going to hear your record?

In 1960 a famous New York disc jockey’s reputation and career were destroyed when he was indicted on commercial bribery charges and accused of taking money to play records.

While the '50s investigations and the congressional payola hearings of 1960 focused on disc jockeys, the 1972 "Project Sound" investigation by the U.S. Attorney's Office in Newark, N.J., went after a larger target. That investigation looked into claims that a major record label had bribed radio stations to play records. As a result of those investigations 19 people were indicted in 1975.

The specter of payola continued to haunt the music industry. In late 1976 Congress and the FCC once again investigated the business, including concert promoters. And the issue came up yet again in 1986 when the practices of independent record promoters were called into question.

The music industry is certainly not the sole domain of payola. Wherever there is money and power, there will be people prepared to exploit the weakness of others for their own ends.

But don’t think that payola rules only amongst the seedy and the unscrupulous. All of us are susceptible to bribery.

In this week’s parsha the Torah prohibits taking bribes. The Torah doesn’t define the lower limit of what is called a bribe, and thus, implicitly, a bribe could even be a few pennies.

Similarly, since the Torah gives this commandment without any qualification, it follows that there is no ceiling as to who might be affected by a bribe. Thus even as lofty a soul as Moshe Rabeinu could be influenced by a bribe.

The Torah is teaching us that even the greatest people can be influenced by the smallest amounts. Naturally, there will be a sliding scale: a small bribe will affect a great person very little, a large bribe more so; a small bribe will influence a lowly person somewhat, and a great bribe — considerably. In other words, the more elevated the person the less will be the effect of even a large bribe, and smaller the person the greater will be the effect of even a small bribe.

However, what emerges clearly from the Torah’s blanket statement ‘the bribe will blind the eyes of the wise’ is that everyone is susceptible to bribery. It’s impossible not to be affected at all.

It should come as no surprise, therefore, why people are reluctant to become religious.

When it comes to being religious, we are looking at a payola scandal that dwarfs anything the music business could come up with.

And what’s the bribe?

If the Torah required us to eat in all the best treif restaurants in the world, if indulgence in the ‘flesh pots’ were a mitzvah, a lot more people would be observant.

The ultimate barrier to faith in G-d is not logical but psychological.

Subconsciously, we know that if we accept the Torah, it’s going to ‘cost us’. We’re going to have to stop driving to the golf club on Saturday morning.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch once said, “Belief is not the knowledge that there is a G-d, but rather the acknowledgment.”

If the smallest of bribes could affect even Moshe, then how much more are we, who are light-years from Moshe’s level, susceptible to the greatest bribe of all — to do exactly what we want, when we want. That’s the ultimate payola.

  • Sources: Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman, Rabbi Nota Schiller

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