By Rabbi Ari Kahn
Everyone has a price, or so we are told. Though we would love to believe that people of integrity do exist, people who cannot be bought, one of the unintended byproducts of capitalism is the subliminal message that everything is subject to negotiation. But is this unfortunate message an unavoidable conclusion of our way of life? Has this cynicism infiltrated our religious life as well? Surely, life within a Jewish community engenders certain real and unavoidable monetary needs: Without resources for building and maintaining Jewish institutions such as schools, synagogues, mikvahs, etc., not to mention the funds necessary to support less-fortunate members of the community, Jewish life as we know it would come to a grinding halt. Yet do these needs become no more than a means for us to cleanse our guilty consciences? Has the Jewish ethic of charity enabled us to simply write a check and consider ourselves fully compliant with Jewish ethics as a whole? Can a donation to the “building fund” cleanse a soul that is otherwise sorely lacking Jewish spiritual and moral vitality? Is our morality - or lack of such - the victim of our cynical use of a checkbook or credit card?
An even more disturbing question is, does God operate by these same rules? Can God be bought? Can He be swayed or manipulated by monetary contributions to the right causes? A verse in this week’s Parasha addresses these questions head-on:
God your Lord is the ultimate Supreme Being and the highest possible Authority. He is the great, mighty and awesome God, who does not give special consideration or take bribes. (Devarim 10:17)
The human mind has a hard time understanding God; the best we can do is extrapolate from human experience. For this reason, it is difficult for us to imagine a God with no needs. One commentary (Bchor Shor) explained this abstract concept in terms much more readily grasped: God “owns” all of existence; therefore, the thought that we can give God something is an absurdity. Similarly, Rashi explains that we cannot give God a monetary bribe: God does not “have a price.” True belief in an infinite God necessarily leads to this conclusion: What can a finite, limited human being possibly give to a God that is beyond space, time and matter? What currency could possibly be used to “pay off” such a deity? Unfortunately, the human mind has trouble processing this paradox; the motto “In God we trust” is meaningful to many people only when it appears on legal tender.
Given the absurdity of “bribing” God, a number of the commentaries (Rambam, Ramban, Seforno) suggest that the bribe mentioned in the verse above refers to a different sort of currency: mitzvot. We may tempted to believe that performing a good deed can cause God to “forget,” or at least to look the other way, when we sin. The reasoning seems to be that because God so values those who follow His ways, a well-timed mitzvah can erase a slew of bad deeds.
To this thinking, the Torah responds: God does not take bribes. The spiritual universe works in a more straightforward manner: We are rewarded for our good deeds, and punished for misdeeds. We cannot “make an arrangement” with God. On the other hand, if we have strayed, teshuva is always possible; regret for past misdeeds, coupled with a commitment to change, is a mitzvah in and of itself. Despite the fact that the Torah’s warning seems stern and somewhat off-putting - “He is a mighty and awesome God who does not give special consideration or take bribes” - the very next verse tempers this foreboding and ominous statement with a clear counter-statement:
He brings justice to the orphan and widow, and loves the foreigner, granting him food and clothing. You must also show love toward the foreigner, since you were foreigners in the land of Egypt. Remain in awe of God, serve Him, cling to Him, and swear by His name. (Devarim 10:18-20)
We are encouraged to emulate God, to partner with God - not because this behavior will erase any negative things we have done or will do, but because moral behavior is kind, and just, and good. God cannot be bribed, but He is happy to take on “junior associates and partners” here on earth, people who are willing to behave in a god-like manner and fill the world with godliness. The more we adopt God’s behaviors, the more we are kind, giving, supportive of others, the more godliness will come into the world – and that is surely no trivial goal.