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The Problem with PACS (Shoftim – 08/19/23)

The Problem with PACS

All societies hope their judges and law enforcement agencies are fair, don’t show favoritism, and are corruption free. The Torah’s ideal for a Jewish state is not different. Our parsha, Shoftim, lays down the rules:

“You shall set up judges and law enforcement officials for yourself in all your cities that the Lord, your God, is giving you, and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment. You shall not pervert justice; you shall not show favoritism, and you shall not take a bribe, for bribery blinds the eyes of the discerning and upsets the plea of the just.”

For years, I was bothered by the last component on this list: bribery. The Torah can’t be referring to the way we usually understand it. Bribery is self-explanatory – it’s outright corruption. The money is an exchange for a favor. Why would the Torah go to lengths to explain why it’s wrong?

However, thanks to a certain Supreme Court justice who notoriously keeps forgetting to disclose certain perks, I now know what the Torah is referring to. It is talking about gifts, things given without stipulations:

Plane rides on people’s private jets, stays at the vacation homes of the rich and famous, free rent for a relative, etc.

Unfortunately, if we look at our government, it’s not just Supreme Court Justices that are the problem; PACs (political action committees) support our whole democracy.

For instance, ahead of the 2020 election, seventy-two senators and 302 members of the House of Representatives, representing more than two-thirds of Congress, cashed a check from the pharmaceutical industry.[1]

Robin Williams used to joke that our representatives should dress like NASCAR drivers, with all the emblems of their supporters; this way, we’ll know what really causes them to vote the way they do.

Now, why are gifts so powerful that they blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just?

The Talmud says when one accepts a gift from another, it intrinsically brings the two closer.

אמר רבא: מאי טעמא דשוחדא

כיון דקביל ליה שוחדא מיניה, איקרבא ליה דעתיה לגביה והוי כגופיה

Rava asks, why does Shochad (Hebrew for bribery) work? Once one receives a gift from another, the two minds are melded, and they become one entity. Then sets in the golden rule, “One doesn’t see his own faults.”

ואין אדם רואה חובה לעצמו. מאי שוחד? שהוא חד

What does Shochad literally mean? “They are one.”

Unless we change our system to outlaw PACs and business sponsorships, our representatives will continue to be subservient to those who financially support them.

We once had a rabbis’ meeting with then-Congressman Steven Israel. He said that as soon as he entered Congress, he was told by his party leader that he needed to fundraise $20,000 a day for his next election in two years.

Even though Steve was well respected, he left Congress because he felt he was spending too much time fundraising and not enough time working for the general good.

The Torah clearly frowns on this kind of support to our judges and officials. Unless we genuinely overhaul how our representatives receive election funding, we will suffer skewed politics.

Now, while Shochad is deleterious for elected officials, it does have some positive benefits for us: appeasement.

I remember I’d be watching a TV show or movie in my youth, and the husband would do something to infuriate his wife. He’d then buy her flowers or chocolates, or in severe cases, diamonds, and the wife would be appeased. I thought it was a joke until I got married. I discovered that it really works! Perhaps, this is the idea: giving a gift is like giving oneself to another, and this act innately bringing two hearts closer. And it works for friends and acquaintances as well.

So, the parsha is highlighting for us part of what’s wrong with our government. Unfortunately, it won’t be an easy fix. On the other hand, it’s also giving us good advice on healing hurt feelings and creating closeness. Give oneself to another by means of a gift.

Have a wonderful week,

R’ Neil


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