In Parshas Mishpotim (23:8) we read, “Veshochad lo sikach ki hashochad ye’aver pikchim visalef divrei tzaddikim – And you shall not take a bribe because a bribe will blind the wise and corrupt the words of the righteous.” Harav Shmuel Kamenetsky shlita asks an obvious question: How can a bribe truly change the outlook of a tzaddik, one who is supposed to be beyond bribery and corruption? But the sad truth is that as we see in politics and in other realms, even righteous people can be affected by bribes; the Torah is thus warning us to be aware that even a righteous person can be affected by a bribe. Another answer given is based on many talmudic cases and other real life cases, where great rabbis recused themselves from judging court cases when they might have received a gift shortly before the case was to be heard. My father z”l shared with me that in his yeshiva, a semicha candidate had once given one of the roshei yeshiva a Chanukah gift – and the rosh yeshiva then refused to give the boy his semicha exam. The rosh yeshiva explained that he was unable to give him the test because there was no way that he could judge his worthiness appropriately, as he was the recipient of a gift, and that the test would need to be administered by one of the other roshei yeshiva. All these cases seem to indicate the grave danger that a bribe can have even on a righteous person.
Reb Shmuel’s question still begs explanation, however, as to how a bribe could affect a righteous person such as those found in the talmudic cases or in my father’s yeshiva. Reb Shmuel explains that the examples in the Gemoro do not mean that the rabbis had felt bribed and could no longer be impartial to the case and that they felt the need to recuse themselves from judging or testing the person who gave the gift. When a person receives a gift, he automatically has a responsibility to be makir tov, to show appreciation for the gift he has received. If he has an obligation to repay a kindness in that way, he must recuse himself from judging or testing a potential semicha candidate – because his overflowing gratitude makes it impossible for him to be 100 per-cent objective.
Hakoras hatov is one of the mainstays of Jewish life that determines who we are as Jews. In a school setting, I, as an administrator, as well as my colleagues must show gratitude to the parents and lay leaders who partner with us on a daily basis. At the same time, this same message inspires parents to show hakoras hatov to all those who display heartfelt dedication on behalf of their children and families daily. In this “me-centered” generation, we as parents should be proud that we are different in the way we treat others. While limud haTorah is certainly crucial, by focusing on character traits and middos we are developing the skills in our children to fight some of the less-than-desirable ME culture that is pervasive in our society.
Rabbi Peretz Scheinerman